What Is There To Say
by Brandon Getz
The following piece was originally published in F(r)iction #8. Art by Daniel Reneau.
Her father stands at the kitchen sink, one long hand holding the wet wound on the back of his head. In the other is a serrated knife. His gray hair is blood-soaked, and there’s a dark stain growing on his shirt collar. She asks her father about the wound. She asks him about the knife.
Without turning around, he says, It kept scratching around in there. He says, What else was I supposed to do?
In the sink, slick with blood like a deformed newborn, is her father’s homunculus. It steadies itself against a used coffee mug. It’s a rough-hewn thing, the idea of a man, not even tall enough to touch the faucet. It blinks flat white eyes, and asks for a towel.
What is that? she asks her father.
I don’t know, he answers. His shoulders rise and fall as he wheezes. She notices blood on the tubing around her father’s ears—the tubing that pumps oxygen into his nose. As always, one hand grips the handle of the tank, agitating its single loose and creaky wheel. He keeps telling her he’ll fix it, but he doesn’t. She thinks he likes the way it annoys her, announcing his presence like a squeaking herald. She can’t forget that he’s still there, in the house he owns, alive.
The homunculus wipes itself off with the dish sponge. Under the blood, its skin is a dull gray. Its stomach, flat and rubbery, lacks a belly button. The area between its thighs is smooth as a Ken doll’s.
The sponge is wedged inside the coffee cup, its yellow surface now a heavy red.
When It is clean, the homunculus asks to be called Blair, her father’s middle name.
It climbs out of the sink. She says they should go to the ER. Her father might need stitches.
I don’t need stitches, he says. Get me a band-aid, he tells her. I’ll be in the garage.
The wheel on the tank squeaks. The door to the garage opens and shuts.
Blair says, It will be okay.
She doesn’t know what that means.
Her father is in the garage building his machine. His round, heavy goggles make him look like some insect, some inhuman thing. Whenever she steps inside to ask him if he needs anything, he is hard at work. Dials and switches bloom from the dashboard. There are pedals that look stolen from a piano. Sparks fly.
Blair follows him. It holds bolts and washers, handing them to her father as he works. He’s accepted the homunculus like he accepted the tank of oxygen or the mass of black cells in his lung: as if they had always been there. As if that were the natural order of things.
She watches the small thing drag a hammer across the concrete floor. She could step on It. She could crush It with the hammer. One little tap.
She wonders if It’s alive.
His back to her, the wound on her father’s skull is taped over with gauze. He scratches at it when he thinks she’s not looking.
Where are you going? he says. He doesn’t turn to look at her. He never does.
Work, she says. Then I have a thing.
Do what you want, he says. By the time you get back, I’ll probably be dead.
Why homunculus? The word sprang into her mind when she saw it. She thought she remembered Greek sketches of a figure bent like Atlas inside the skull of a man. But where she’d seen them, or if they were simply something she’d dreamed, she didn’t know.
Internet searches offer results for alchemy and animalcules, on Faust and Frankenstein. She finds an article about “homunculus theory of the mind,” the theory of Cartesian Theater. The notion that a smaller self sits inside the brain, watching life play out through your eyes like a movie.
The problem, says the article, is how the homunculus itself would see and think. If the mind needs a homunculus to work, then the homunculus mind requires another homunculus. A smaller Blair inside of Blair, and so on: an infinity of Blairs. Blairs all the way down.
She scratches the back of her own head.
Would hers ask to be called Ronée, she wonders? Would It have hard lumps of breast, would It be as bald and blank as her father’s?
The turntable gathers dust on a shelf near her father’s workspace.
The size of a refrigerator, her father’s machine sits under a tarp. She wants to look but knows he would notice if the cover was even slightly displaced. His face turns ugly when he shouts, even uglier than it did when he was young and full of life and anger. His eyes now swim with cataracts, and his mustache, once a heavy black handlebar, is ragged and white under the tubes in his nose.
She wipes dust from the top of the turntable. On the shelves beside it are whiskey boxes, each full of LPs, labeled and organized by artist: Baker, Beiderbecke, Brubeck. She finds the box marked F-H and flips through the Gs—a dozen or more Stan Getz, in cloudy dust jackets, the cardboard packaging splitting along the seams. She remembers her father introducing himself when he was younger, when he still played. G-e-t-z, he would say with a smile. Like Stan.
Carefully, she pulls one from its sleeve and places it on the turntable. On the shelf below is an old stereo receiver, and she switches it on. An orange light glows behind the tuner. She turns the volume low and drops the needle onto the record. From the two wood-paneled speakers, tucked away in the rafters, the saxophones of Getz and Mulligan begin their duel, drums and string bass skipping lightly behind them. She taps her foot to the music. She remembers her father, mustache and curls still black, dressed in a suit with his shirt collar open. She was on her grandmother’s lap, or her Aunt Linda’s, and her father’s long, yellowed fingers climbed up and down the neck of the bass like a spider, and he looked happy—in love even—with the sound.
One remembers, says Blair from the open door. It climbs down to the floor and walks toward her, casting a small shadow. Blair says, Please keep it playing.
Don’t tell him, she says. Don’t tell him I was in here.
Nodding Its head to the rhythm, the homunculus says, Ron loves the music. He remembers the music.
His coughing wakes her most nights. Wet hacking, followed by heavy, wheezing breaths. She listens to it for long minutes until he calls for her.
She brings him water.
You could’ve put some ice in this, he says. It’s warm.
He says, What took you so long?
He says, Don’t call the doctor, I’m fine.
He says, Give me the goddamn glass.
Above the towel rack she hangs a poster of the periodic table of elements. In her own place, before her father needed someone, she had it in her bedroom. She’d tune to a jazz station and sink into her bed, getting high and inventing new elements. She would give them names and properties and try to fit them into the puzzle of the table, its rows and columns already so full.
Her lighter flares over the neon-striped glass pipe in her hand. She sinks into the warm water, suds bubbling around her breasts and shoulders. She stares at the elements, trying to imagine a new metal, a new noble gas. The bowl grows black and cold. She sets it next to the shrunken bar of soap. As she washes her hair, she touches the ridges of her skull with her fingertips. She feels someone watching her, from the inside. Watching a movie of the soap dish and her knees.
The homunculus is in the kitchen. It is looking at the sink.
Ron is dying, It says.
I know, she says.
One wonders, It says. When there is no Ron.
The homunculus doesn’t finish. It slides from the counter, landing heavily on the tile.
That afternoon, she schedules her first CT scan. They ask her about her symptoms. She has none, she tells them. They ask if she’s at risk for malignancies, if she’s had any serious injuries.
My father has cancer, she tells them.
The scans show nothing. They are black and white and clinically bland. Her brain looks like a halved walnut. Nothing to worry about, they tell her. She asks for copies of the scans. She schedules an MRI.
She rips down the periodic table. In its place she tacks up the printouts—the dull grays of the CTs, the bright, spongy blues of the MRIs. All the doctors tell her the same thing. She’s running out of hospitals, and her insurance isn’t covering the extra visits. Not medically necessary.
She sits in the clawfoot tub with all her clothes on, smoking a lumpy joint, trying to imagine which parts of her brain hold which memories, which wrinkle makes her feel love, and loss. Which fold is now ballooning and kaleidoscopic with THC.
Her father doesn’t ask about the scans. He hardly bathes anymore, except when she has to take him to the oncologist, and even then he uses a cloth at the sink. My whore’s bath, he says. He laughs darkly. He smells like death.
The house echoes with the noise of the television. A thick coaxial cord snakes through the kitchen from the living room. It runs under the door to the garage. She sees blue light.
Her father is under the tarp, banging at some inner working of the machine. The TV sits on an overturned milk crate, playing an old cartoon: animated skeletons dancing in black and white to a spooky melody. The cartoon is older than her father—older, perhaps, than her grandmother. In their dance, the skeletons break themselves apart and put themselves back together, playing their bones like instruments. Blair stands beneath the screen, transfixed. She laughs. The wheel on the oxygen tank squeaks.
You need something? her father says.
Remember this? she says. We used to watch it on Halloween.
Her father stares.
Nana helped me dress up as a skeleton one year, she says. Remember? It was just construction paper on a black leotard. I was so cold.
She watches for a spark of recognition in his eyes. He looks caught, almost embarrassed, and she worries about the cancer, imagines it like a black worm growing fat on her father’s memories. He struggles to smile and says, Of course, of course. Your grandmother.
Without turning from the screen, Blair says, We remember.
The wheel squeaks. Each night, she listens as it rolls down the hall. Her father coughs. The toilet flushes, and the faucet runs. Blair’s small footsteps follow her father’s, both shadows passing briefly beneath her door.
Her father swings his head to face her, eyes hidden behind the round, black goggles. The torch still sparks blue, and she sees the reflection of the flame in the lenses. Blair, near her father’s feet, is washed in blue light.
I said it’s late, she says. I have to work in the morning.
This is my house.
I know. But it’s late.
How dare you tell me what to do in my own house.
Her father starts coughing and almost drops the torch. He leans against the workbench, doubled over. Blair has to scurry to avoid her father’s shuffling boots. The back of her father’s head is healed, she notices. A thick red scar runs through the stubble of his hair.
Don’t just stand there, he says. Get me some fucking water.
She gets it.
She doesn’t forget ice.
In the garage, her father is sitting on an old drum stool, out of breath. The torch is off, and the oxygen tank is back on. He breathes deeply through his nose.
You got into my records, he says.
I listened to one of them.
You should ask first. You shouldn’t just take things that don’t belong to you.
Help me to bed, he says.
The tarp is on the garage floor, bunched up and stained black with oil. She sees it, then—a metal box without windows, without wheels or wings or cogs. She turns the latch. The door opens.
Inside, the walls are amess with dials and diodes, with keyboards and switches and gray television screens. A drummer’s stool, its leather cushion splitting, sprouts from the floor like a black mushroom. Instead of a window, her father has welded his one gold record to the wall. Around it are photographs: one of her mother, young and smiling; one of him and his bandmates onstage after a show, in a haze of smoke, her father talking with his hands; so many of her she can’t count—some of which she doesn’t even remember having been taken at all, never mind when. She sees her hair in pigtails, her gapped smile from when she lost her front teeth. She sees herself on her father’s knee, as he teaches her to play chopsticks on her grandmother’s piano.
This is Ron’s machine, Blair says. The homunculus is behind her. She can’t tell if It’s angry or just stating fact. Its tone is flat. Its blank eyes offer nothing.
I’m looking at it, she says. I can look.
She says, What’s the machine for?
What does it do, though? What things?
It is his last thing. He won’t make anything else.
Did he make you?
I can’t say.
She touches the back of her skull and says, Fine. Fuck it. He’s spent his life making stupid things, stupid music, stupid gadgets. I don’t care if he wants to waste the last moments of his life making another stupid thing.
The homunculus says, He made you.
Things her homunculus might remember:
- Her mother’s death, when she was four
- The way her grandmother smelled, like cigarettes and sour tomatoes
- The snap of her father’s belt, the welts it made on her hands
- Staying up too late, falling asleep on smoky couches in greenrooms, men laughing around her
- The times her father locked her outside, in the rain, for some small offense. Crawling into his car, hiding there, until he stormed out and ordered her inside
- When her father denied her breakfast because she slept too late. When her father denied her dinner because she’d failed to take out the trash. When her father denied her water because she showered for too long
- When, at fourteen, the drummer of her father’s band raped her in the bed of his truck, taking her virginity. His thin calloused hands and breath like rotten meat
- Seducing the rest of her father’s bandmates, even as they protested that they had wives at home and daughters her age
- Wishing her father would die
- The call, from her father, telling her he was dying. How she’d cried then—gutturally, like an animal
When she loses her job, she’s not surprised. She spent most of her shifts looking at her own distorted reflection in the flat chrome faces of the store’s mannequins. She took long breaks to smoke her one-hitter in the bathroom, and she didn’t show up at all for a whole week straight. Envelopes, printed with the return addresses of hospitals and clinics, are ripped open and stacked high on her dresser. Some are stamped in red ink.
She doesn’t tell her father about the job so she can still leave for hours at a time. He stays in the garage all day, Blair at his feet. She wonders what they say to one another, if they have conversations. Her father used to tell extravagant stories, long jokes with witty punch lines, while he and other musicians smoked cigarettes and passed around a bottle.
When he talks now, to her, it’s only to give orders. They haven’t had a conversation in years.
There is a cemetery nearby, a big one with stone walls surrounding rolling hills covered in rows of old tombstones. She walks in the shade of the oaks, reads beside the small frog pond, until it’s time for her shift to end. She’s not sure if her father even knows what time it is, or what time she’s supposed to be home, but the routine is a comfort to her. It feels normal.
He is in the garage, oxygen tank in the furthest corner, tubes wound around the valve. He’s wearing a full metal mask that looks medieval. The torch throws sparks off the hinges of the machine. A record is playing on full volume, brass and bass shaking dust from the rafters.
What is this, she yells.
He turns, flipping up the mask. His face looks gaunt and sallow, only half alive.
The record, she shouts. Who’s playing?
Ellington, he says. Listen to that bass line. Wendell Marshall. Fuck, that man could walk.
She listens, tries to isolate the bass, following it note for note. The saxophone is manic and cries out for attention, but she concentrates on the bass in the background, nodding along; while the other instruments jump from solo to solo, the bass is a constant, holding it all together. Her father is sitting on the small drummer’s stool inside the machine, mask up and eyes closed, torch dead on the floor, fingers twitching slightly on his knees as they remember the strings. Blair taps Its foot nearby.
It’s early morning, and he wakes up coughing. She gets him water and he says nothing, which is a sort of thank you, or at least a kindness. He falls back to sleep, tubes outlining his hollow face, and she listens to his strained breathing. She touches his hand; it’s warm but clammy. The skin is loosened from the bones, and veins rise soft and blue beneath it. Dark spots dot his knuckles.
Blair watches her from the other side of the bed.
I don’t even know if you’re real, she says.
One doesn’t either, says the homunculus. One only knows what one senses.
I hate him, she tells It.
You’re right. But I wish I did.
Ron is sorry, It says. He can’t say. That’s why one is here. One can say it.
Why can’t he say it?
The word died in his mouth once. He cannot revive it.
Just once, she says, I want to hear him say it. To me. And mean it.
The next day, she finds her father on the floor of the garage. He is lying on his back on the oil-stained cement, a large cut above his eye. Blood smears one corner of the machine. The oxygen tube has been ripped from his face, and his breathing is labored. She stands over him, watching his chest struggle up and down, and she thinks about telling him the truth—her job, the endless doctors, anything—but nothing seems important enough to say. It isn’t until after the ambulance leaves that she realizes Blair isn’t there.
She looks for It room by room. She says Its name. The house is empty.
She takes the turntable from the garage. The stereo nearly topples as she rips the cables from its back. From a random box, she chooses a record, and she takes both to the bathroom, where her brain still papers the walls. She sets the turntable on the toilet, plugs it into a small set of speakers she’s placed on the sink. She turns the LP over and looks at its cover.
It’s an album by Gerry Mulligan’s quartet. The name of the band is lettered in blue and yellow across the top, the album title in white beneath it, over a photo of sax man posing in the dark with his instrument. On the back is a black-and-white picture of the four jazzmen crowding together with their instruments and reading from a music stand. Here, above the track listing, the title has a question mark.
She looks at it for a long time, that simple curl of punctuation.
A question begging an answer.
Then she slips the record from its sleeve. It’s old heavy vinyl, a little dusty, and a deep scratch runs through the grooves of one side. She sets the record on the platter, drops the stylus, and closes the lid. The speakers crackle to life with the sound of baritone sax. She turns on the faucet and lights a pumpkin candle on the windowsill as warm water fills the tub. Ignoring the sax and trumpet, she listens only to the bass. Slow, methodical. Holding the whole band together. She turns the water off, and white suds float like glaciers over the surface.
The bass keeps thrumming, one track to the next, like a heartbeat. She slips into the water until the suds are at her throat. Her eyes run across the printouts on the wall, stopping on one of the color-coded MRIs. There is my brain, she thinks, each layer the same blob in a different palette: purple, yellow, red, blue. She stares into the lines and ridges, searching for Its spine along the ridges of the cortex, Its smile somewhere near the thalamus. She’s still looking when she takes her father’s razor from the soap dish. The bass keeps its even pace, the trumpet traces the sketch of a melody, and she unlatches the blade from its casing. She’s still looking as she presses her thumb along its edge and feels its bite. The record hits the scratch, and the sax blows the same two notes, two notes, two notes. She’s still looking. With both hands, she parts the hair at the back of her head, and begins.