They sat there in the dark, both looking into the fire. Now & then, one of them would grab a stick & poke at the red coals & then drop the stick on top & wait for the wood to flare up with a brighter light. Other than the sound of the flames slowly chewing on the hot coals that were its dinner, it was quiet. Finally, the man cleared his throat.
I know the man who invented everything, he said.
The boy nodded & tilted his head ever so slightly.
Everything, he said. Even the things that people think haven’t been invented yet. He was one who stood on the shoulders of giants. Who actually invented the giants whose shoulders he stood on. There is no doubt in my mind that he laid the groundwork. So, it is not a far distance to stretch when I say he invented everything.
If you don’t mind my asking, the boy said, how is it that you have both the honor & good fortune to have met the man who invented everything? Not that I don’t think it is perfectly possible, given what little I know of you.
The man smiled thinly. I take no offense, he said, as I look no different than any other stranger you’d meet in the wood around a campfire. But the look of a person is never a true indication of the mysteries they’ve managed to stumble on in their life.
The boy nodded & made a note to himself to add that to his list of Things Worth Remembering.
If you must know, the man said, it was a complete accident of birth. He was my father.
I do not know if anyone could tell you the first time my father knew he was going to invent things. I certainly could not, since I was not there in those early days. But with what little I’ve been able to piece together from old photos & the memories of my older relatives who knew him before he entered my life, I’d say he most likely started to invent things before he knew the word ‘invent.’ He had what one would call a habit of invention.
I can remember lying in bed, with him leaned up against the headboard, telling my brother & me of how he’d invented the moon & the smell of roses & the way oil in a puddle shines in the sunlight. How he invented the taste of pancakes & the way birds land on telephone wires & the sound of rain on the roof of a car.
He stopped. It’s easy for us to say now, who know so much about the modern world, but it’s good to remember that it’s not so easy before someone invents the idea of it enough for us to chew on & remember the truth of it for ourselves.
The boy agreed that this was a significant point & one that is often forgotten in our days of rushing about.
Anyway, he went on, as he got older, he invented more & more things that no one else had invented. Like the way his first girlfriend smelled like a combination of cherry yogurt & coconut & the first morning there was frost in autumn. He invented how you act when someone says I love you & then they kiss you on the nose & they tilt their neck just so & close their eyes & start to hum softly.
He invented the way you feel when your child is born & the people who bustled around doing all the things that needed to be done when a new person shows up left & no one else was in the room & you held him up in the starlight from the front window & tell him all the things he’ll invent (but you don’t use any words & you do it all in pictures you send to him as you look in his eyes).
I will be grateful to him for this invention alone my whole life, he said. I plan to make good use of it when my own children are born someday.
There were many inventions along the way, some big & some small. It didn’t really matter to him as long as he could keep inventing. He got invited to fancy dinners in New York City & London & even a place in Sweden where they had invented the original colors of the sea. It was a very big honor & there were people from the papers who interviewed him & asked him which was his favorite invention & knowing him as I do, I believe he would’ve smiled & said he loved them all, but his most favorite was the one he was working on now. But, he would say, that one’s a secret.
This was the invention he kept in a shed in our backyard. There was a big red door on the shed & there was a shiny padlock & an old sign that said Facilities Only For Use by Customers. He had found the sign in a hardware store in a small town in Utah & it always made him laugh.
Which is how he invented a lot of things. He worked for a very long time on the invention he kept in the shed. He never told anyone what it was, or what it did. One night, after a simple dinner of roast chicken & green beans, he went to bed in the usual fashion. The next morning, we found him there, in his bed. He was smiling, as if he’d been dreaming of new inventions. These would be inventions for someone else to discover, because he was done. Except for the invention in the shed which none of us had ever seen.
A few weeks later, I was the one who opened the shiny padlock, he said. I used the key we found around his neck.
Inside the shed was a table. On the table was a metal box with a button right on top. Taped to the box was a piece of paper, covered with delicate handwriting. I don’t remember the exact words at this moment, though I can find them for you, if you have any interest later on. But if you have no objections, I’m sure I can give you a reasonable paraphrase of what he wrote.
The boy had no objections & so the man continued.
I’ve invented a lot of things, it said. Some of them are helpful. Some of them are before their time. Some of them are after their time, but it doesn’t matter because inventing is like breathing for me. You may not understand that now, but some day, I hope you will. Because it will make your life your very own. This is my most important Work.
Even though it seems simple, the science behind it is quite complex & there are fewer than five or six people in the whole world who understand it well enough to be able to explain it in a way that won’t put you to sleep. It is a machine that pumps out random letters night & day & sometimes you’ll see a word that’s sort of familiar, or hear something like a sigh, or a conversation on the other side of a big room & it will make you think of a night in Paris, or the laughter that always comes with a true first kiss. Or it will remind you of the sunlight coming in through the window of your grandma’s sun room. Or the smell of wet pavement in a city after a summer rain. It will remind you of many things.
But here’s the secret of this machine: it is not any of those things. It is a complete coincidence & the only reason it makes sense at all is that it’s hard to believe anyone would go to all this effort for all those years for no good reason. So, you’ll probably spend a lot more time trying to get it to make sense to you, until one day you look up, maybe you’ll be walking back from the grocery store with ice cream & toilet paper. Or you’ll be standing in an elevator listening to ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ & you’ll look up & you’ll suddenly understand, almost like the sun coming from behind a cloud, that it’s like everything else in this world we invent: a thing to keep us busy while we’re remembering how to love.
The man stopped & leaned down & grabbed a stick & poked a bit at the fire. A few sparks raced into the night, playing their little spark games before they were called home to bed.
I folded that paper in fourths & placed it in my pocket right over my heart, he said. I still carry it with me, but not in my pocket next to my heart, because I often forget when I do laundry & it is not good for an historical artifact to go through a full spin cycle. Now, I keep it folded in my wallet. I do not read it as often now as I did in those first days, but still I think I’ll remember that moment, sitting there until the light faded to dark, for the rest of my days.