Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
THERE ARE ONLY TWO STORIES
Leo Tolstoy said there are only two stories: a stranger comes to town, a man goes on a journey. All of these implications about simplicity, all of this weight on complexity of detail to justify our retellings.
When my grandmother told me stories, I did not know the quote, did not recognize the patterns, did not conceive of a journey as anything but distance traveled.
What journeys I had ahead of me.
It’s been said there are only seven jokes. That there are no new jokes, only audiences who haven’t encountered them yet. Only different ways of telling.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Though I remember my grandmother’s treasure trove of kindness—good stories and good humor and good snacks. I’ve wondered, too, if my memories are colored for lack of exposure, for she was the first to tell me each of the seven jokes, and both of the stories, not to mention the first to feed me French onion dip and coconut cake, and Mountain Dew.
Do I remember her best for being my first great love?
Do I remember her first for being my best love, not cooled by disagreement, by conditions, by any ending except for—
There are an infinite number of kindnesses. I hold this to be true—
My grandmother dropping whole dollar bills in the Salvation Army bucket, even when my father said she didn’t have the money to spare.
My father carrying a woman’s suitcase off the airplane when she struggled between it, her child, the car seat.
The boy who stayed with me when others ran away the time I skinned my knee bloody on the playground blacktop.
The first time I was old enough to let a child win our game of one-on-one.
Am I old now?
Old enough to tell jokes. Old enough to offer kindnesses.
Old enough to remember a white-haired woman falling asleep between turns at the Scrabble board, and to know that for everyone who has stories like this—
for everyone who thinks our two stories are the same—
for me, she remains one of a kind.
We could never be children together, you born much too soon, me too late.
I interviewed you once for school. When I could conceive of a time before color television and Castlevania, but not in practical terms. I Imagined anyone without such luxuries milking cows and tending crops. So I asked you about that part of your life. You hesitated, then explained, patient as you could, you hadn’t grown up on a farm.
We could never be children together, you too old, me too young.
You told me a story about meeting friends after dark and stowing away on a train, headed far from home. I was so enamored with this tale, so enraged when I checked back for the rest of the story and you didn’t know what I was talking about. That, when you did remember, you revealed the story had been more fiction than fact. Yes, you snuck out after dark, but there was no train. The train was inspired by the one that went past your house those days of my childhood. There was no train for you to hop that lifetime ago.
Your living room carpet was bright orange like fire; shag so if I squinted my eyes I might mistake it for lapping flame. I pretended sometimes. Leaping from downed couch cushion to Queen Anne chair. Sometimes I lifted your ottoman—thinking it very heavy, imagining it a boulder—and set it down hard to squelch a blaze. Were these the same dreamscapes you and your friends saw? You and your friends with no train?
You didn’t like these boys’ games, you told me years later. Preferred Pinochle, Scrabble, the arts and crafts my sister coaxed me into. I nodded sagely, thinking myself very adult sipping fizzy orange soda from a glass tumbler. How silly I’d been. How difficult to understand for you who had never been a boy.
We could never be children together, though we tried sometimes. For what is old age, you mused once, but another chance to be irresponsible? You chased arthritis medication with marshmallow fudge cookies. We drank whole milk, thick like cream.
The last time we went to lunch, I drove. You insisted on paying, but I left the tip when you didn’t think to, baffled by all the slips of paper the waitress had brought back with your MasterCard.
We could never be children together. That mix of growing and receding that seems like it ought to meet, but always pass one another like Escher’s stairs, an infinity of overlapping and climbing and descent.
Might you fall forever? I wondered that when you were very old. When you slept longer than you stayed awake. When you didn’t know my name. When neither of us would be children again.
My grandmother never learned to drive a car. Spent most of her adult life in the City where there was no need, let alone, money for one.
She’d fall asleep on long rides in my father’s car. Said she’d always heard that driving was a drowsy experience, the monotony of following the road, those little adjustments on the gas pedal and brake, little adjustments to the wheel to stay straight on the road.
My father never responded to that recurrent comment and it wasn’t until years later I put it together. The accident my father had when he was young and drove into the night, only to fall asleep and crash. He still has an enormous scar on his shoulder, forty years gone by. My grandmother might have offered the bit about getting drowsy driving as a peace offering—like the accident was OK, like it wasn’t his fault. He wouldn’t take it that way. Not unlike her other small kindnesses, like offering me cookies before dinner or like trying to make small talk while Dad read the newspaper. Niceties that needled at him.
I’ve never learned to ride a bike, but I’ve dreamed I can. Not wishful dreams or missing out, just the way it is in that particular dreamscape, like when I dream, still, I’m talking to my grandmother, all these years after—
One of these dreams, she tells me she’s hungry. I’m aware this request is special, even when I can’t remember why. So I cross her old kitchen floor with the green and orange crescent carpet and open the pantry, open the fridge, though I can’t find what I’m looking for. I say I’ll have to go to the store—that I’ll drive to get there quickly. For I’m old enough to do that—to reach the gas, the brakes.
When I turn around, she’s gone. Sun shining through the windshield. I grip the steering wheel tight. For in this dream, now, I’m driving.