After the death of my fierce Nanna, my grandfather, otherwise lucid as ever, began to lose his grip on names. His grandson he called the little fella, his grandaughter the little girl, and nearly every object became the thing. Set the thing on the thing and bring me the thing, he’d say. Which thing? That thing, he’d point. The thing! His stories were even harder to interpret, with no landmarks at hand to aid in navigation. He’d gesture anyway, frowning at his failure to make us follow. When I was head of the research lab at Mobil — he liked to tell us — anyone who seemed to have a good idea, I’d say go ahead, work on that! He’d left the details up to others, and got his name on scores of patents — half the plastics of the age. He’d learned to read organic compounds with almost Talmudic devotion, and had come to understand the importance of thinking big, but not what can happen to small details that don’t fit into an engineer’s tidy equations. How they wash downstream and out to sea. I’m glad he didn’t live to read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It might’ve reduced him to a complete stutter, so many bland things stripped of their thingness by decades of sunlight, his grand inventions converging in submerged islands and ground down into toxic floating sand.
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