By Rammel Chan
Naturally, when she returned to the United States, Sylvia’s go-to topic of conversation was her two month study-abroad to Cape Town, South Africa. Once inquisitive friends and family would even touch upon the subject, the flood-gates would open and all other topics of conversation would cease to exist. They listened politely, sipping at the ice in empty water glasses in restaurants or living rooms or coffee shops in Oak Park, with nods and forced smiles, to what young Sylvia had done on her study-abroad trip.
Each conversation about Sylvia’s trip to South Africa was capped with one particular Story. A story that was, Sylvia declared to herself, her very best moment on her trip. It was the tale of how during her IES Abroad Service Learning Course, she helped secure living quarters for a young single pregnant woman.
The basics of the story were this: Sylvia was to commit 60 hours of community service during her stay. She worked at a local organization that provided subsidized housing for low income families. A young black South African entered her station. She was twenty-nine weeks with child. She was only twenty. She wore no shoes. The proper paperwork had not been filed for government assistance. Sylvia, very quickly, doing the morally necessary, but bureaucratically unethical thing of rewriting said paperwork. The young mother’s teary-eyed smile of gratitude. The whites of her teeth. The two shaking hands over the desk for an unusual amount of time. The brief moment after where Sylvia, in what she considered the most significant spiritual moment of her life, saw herself in another.
The Story was not bad. It felt naïve maybe and privileged perhaps in its world view and certainly very, very young. At first unsteady on its new feet and at other times so rambunctious and so full of energy that you would think it might go off course and hurt itself, like a puppy with paws too big for its body. The story was chubby with digressions like baby fat and plagued with pauses like hiccups and was sometimes so surprisingly aware of itself that it became solemn and apologetic. But the memory was so important to Sylvia that she continued to take the Story out, training it and herself in the telling.
The first true test of the new young Story happened at Sylvia’s Five-year High School reunion, where she surprised some old friends, at first by arriving at all and then as the night went on looking and sounding so much more mature than she had ever been. She wore a proud, secret smile and she told her old friends the Story in an unabashed and clear way, confidently doling out answers to questions and graciously pausing when people reacted to the tale.
Later, her high school friends politely whispered in an earnest way, how good it was to see her, how nice it was that she seemed to have finally made peace with herself after High School, that she no longer seemed so angry or tired or world-weary; some even noticing that she had had nothing to drink that evening but club soda. They sat, all half-smiling, with eyes far away, softly agreeing on how five good years can change a person for the better.
The Story returned with her on that car trip back to Oak Park, proud, as though it had passed some kind of fiery trial not just with her friends but with Sylvia herself. At night, when she had brushed her teeth and pulled the warm covers over her soft skin, the Story tucked itself beneath her eyes and guided her dreams to beautiful flat landscapes of a continent she loved so far away.
Sylvia grew into an adult woman carrying the Cape Town Story with her. She needn’t even say the Story aloud to know how it affected her, to know how it defined her. With it, the memory of the thing and armed with the ability to bring forth the thing into the air, she gave a permanence to herself that she had never felt before. She knew that her actions had consequences. She knew that she could help people. She knew that she was here.
She carried the Cape Town, South Africa Story through college and graduate school, where she eagerly told it to a new group of friends; sipping cranberry juice and soda at very lively parties or at very serious birthday dinners or at very casual work get-togethers. She found her love with a capital L in a new permanent boyfriend, James. He was a tall, wiry man who listened well and cooked even better. When she finally got a job in the city, James followed her and the Story to a Lincoln Park apartment, where she hosted small dinners where they roasted chicken and vegetables and listened to old records. At these dinners, Sylvia told the Story to her office mates and even her new boss, who intently listened with that businessman kindness that is both brutal and earnest at the same time. A personality that she knew her old self would have feared to death, but not this person she had become.
And in the time she became the person she had become, so too did the Story grow. Her memory was the same but her perspective of the thing seemed to change. Her sadness at the desolation she witnessed was turned to political anger, a justified anger toward the systematic machine that allowed such things to happen to people. She boldly and unabashedly proclaimed righteous indignation for the sake of the single, black pregnant South African and for all South Africans. The Story grew up to be a little preachy, but none among her audience noticed, save for James, who had heard the story so many times it seemed like his own story now.
Every time, as the Story ended, she would smile to her audience and say that she hoped that someday she could go back to South Africa to make a real difference.
It was only the natural order of things for James and Sylvia to marry. Plans filled her time and the little moments she shared with people were spent talking about the Now. How amazed she was at soon becoming Mrs. Sylvia Bacon, how fun it sounded. She was quieter and more thoughtful in the days leading up to the wedding and at all the little events, her engagement party or her wedding shower or her bachelorette party, she offered up the same joke that she enjoyed telling instead of the Story. “Maybe I’ll name our first child Hickory Smoked”. Her friends and co-workers would laugh and laugh.
During this time the Story was patient and lingered in the back of her mind, occupying spare bedrooms in the apartment James and Sylvia shared. Occasionally in a day dream, Sylvia would sit with the Story and she would be brought to tears at the memory of it all, how, in those short two months at the other side of the world, through kindness and duty, she found a deep universal connection with another person and through that person with all human life.
For a while the Story roomed occasionally with other tales. One abrasive roommate was the tale of James and Sylvia’s Wedding, a long boring song about cake and missing flowers and DJs, who stuck around a bit too long in the Story’s opinion and in the opinion of Sylvia’s friends. For two months the Story shared house with an anecdote about the Rude Man at Gene’s Sausage Market Who Said Sylvia Spoke Good English, which was entertaining and full of justice and catharsis and humor. The story of James’ Boss’ Affair with his Secretary came to Sylvia’s lips
quite a good deal although there was something odd in the way it was told for it was never her memories and it walked through the house in a different way, the Story thought, like a stray cat who came for the food, never feeling like it quite belonged.
But occasionally, during a thoughtful debate with James’ work friends, or watching election results at a bar with her office mates, she would tell the Story. It would stride proudly into the world, donning its turning points and motifs and themes like a pressed uniform. In the years she carried it, the Story had become quite good.
The details, like the memory itself, became as vivid to her audience as it was to Sylvia. The bright teeth of the South African girl smiling so hard at Sylvia’s kindness, the hardness of the soles of the girl’s feet, how pregnant and vulnerable the girl seemed, how strange and unjust that these two young women could simultaneously live in a world so full of promise and one so devoid of hope.
The Story was so confident and unapologetic in its politics, so pragmatic and intelligent in its points of view and so unafraid of how it shaped Sylvia’s life that, upon returning to their homes and after brushing their teeth and getting under their warm covers, her friends and coworkers would think scattered unanalyzed thoughts of love and hate for the duplicity of humanity.
And Sylvia remembered how good it felt to tell the Story, how much she loved the memory of her time in Cape Town, South Africa and how lovely it was that, though it had been years and years and years now, the Story still remained.
The Story ended the same, with Sylvia’s confession of longing to return to the place she called home when she was twenty-two. But now, she would imagine how good it would feel to perhaps see the young South African woman again with her baby, though she probably wouldn’t remember Sylvia at all and her child would be nearly ten. And she would look at James with this longing and James would take her hand and say something like, “Maybe someday,” though this promise seemed to grow weaker and smaller each time the Story was told.
And of course, it happened, that Sylvia became pregnant herself and she bore two sons and neither was named Hickory Smoked. She resigned from her job in the city to spend more time with the boys and James spent more time at work to support them.
The stories she told of her sons, James Jr. and Steven, became permanent tenants with the Story. They moved to bigger rooms and became little masters of the little home where the Story resided in Sylvia’s mind. These little ones were quick and amusing tales, offered up to strangers as she waited at the grocery line or to friends at yoga or to other parents at soccer practice, of how Steven loved to brush his teeth before he even had teeth or how James Jr. spoke for the first time when his baby brother was born.
The Story was like a little mother to these tales, offering bits of itself in their telling: an ear-pricking phrase here, a humorous simile there. The Story was patient and never jealous although there were instances at dinner when Sylvia grew tired of talking about tiny dirty feet and tiny dirty noses and she wished to offer her experience in Cape Town, South Africa as atopic of conversation. In those moments the Story would hush the other tales to bed and present itself, a mastered entertainment, brandishing all of his usual weapons. Though the parents that
Sylvia now considered her friends seemed more interested in stories of the children, if not a little bored by the Story itself.
Late at night the Story listened as Sylvia told James anecdotes about her day and James would respond with thoughtful noises. James had, for a majority of their time together, been a very good listener but found a slight displeasure in reciting anything of the events of his day. When Sylvia pressed to hear about anything new going on at the office or something interesting he had heard on the radio, a heaviness would come upon him and, knowing this saddened his wife, James, trying desperately to be comforting, would put a hand to her cheek and tell her that a person like him couldn’t possibly do what she does, that going into great detail about the trivial events of life was something that he couldn’t afford because all he could do was think about work and the future.
Sylvia accepted this about her husband, pitying him in a way because perhaps he never learned to tell stories, to speak at length on a subject that fascinated him and, without thinking it, she was grateful that she had learned in her young adulthood to weave stories from the air, even if they were, as he said, about trivial things.
But it hurt. Though Story didn’t allow her to feel how much it hurt. She was still herself and she was still here.
And late at night, she took stock of all the stories that she had: The Rude Man at Gene’s Sausage Market, Steven’s First Tooth, James Jr. Using the Toilet For the First Time, The Laughing Dog at the Park, Stumbling Upon The Best Bacon Sandwich in the Whole City, The Campfire Incident, The Missing Flowers at their Wedding, Her Confrontation with a Tyrannical Personal Trainer, Where She Was on 9/11, The Boys’ First Days at School, The Watch Her Grandmother Left to Her and so on and so on. Of course, The Story of the Pregnant Girl of Cape Town, South Africa stood proudly, metaphors beaming, similes still sharp and glistening, turning points all accounted for and shined. Though the details now seemed a bit weathered her little story—her favorite story—was there right at the top of the list…and she wondered softly what sort of list James carried with him, maybe a series of things that he must do tomorrow and the day after next and, oh goodness, what a poor man…
And she sat with the Story again, told it to herself. It exhilarated her to think about it, to play the part and whisper, in her twenty-two year old voice, to the young pregnant black woman in front of her, to see the woman’s smile and to see her own happiness and life in the smile of that woman. And the Story ended as the Story had ended every time, a promise to someday return to South Africa to make a real difference, but now it seemed so sad to Sylvia to only be telling this trivial thing to herself.
The boys went to school and Sylvia worked very hard to make a comfortable home for herself and her family.
James Jr. had taken on the personality of his namesake, a tall, wiry teenager with a quiet, introverted personality. He had learned to enjoy making things out of wood and spent a significant number of hours in the garage, carving and sawing and hammering. Although he rarely spoke to her about what it was he was ever making, he did bring her to tears on her forty-seventh birthday with a wooden recipe box with a small engraved pig on the lid.
Her second son, Steven, was just like her. Talkative and energetic, a collector of books and stories and songs; plump in places but fast and eager to know and experience new things. He had learned to play the guitar when James Jr. retreated into the garage at the age of fourteen. Steven filled the house with noise and occasionally the noise sounded like music. Steven’s realm was in the basement where he and his band mates padded the walls and constructed a makeshift studio. Unlike his brother, Steven had no affinity to being alone and required the consistent company of friends. And while Sylvia was not too fond of the young men Steven brought home, their hair too long for their little faces and their jackets smelling of cologne and cigarettes, Steven would always introduce each and every one of them to his mother and unabashedly kissed her on the cheek when they would leave to go to one of their “gigs.”
The stories of this odd pair were all that came to Sylvia’s lips these days, songs of love and affection between two very different brothers: The story of how Steven spoke for his mute brother at the Emergency Room the day that James Jr. cut off the tip of his middle finger; the story of how James Jr., without saying a word, drew blood from the nose of a bully who was teasing his younger brother for being ‘a fat faggot’; the story of how Sylvia, like the Wise Solomon, divided the week so that each brother could have the car every other night and like civil, young politicians they compromised and overruled her judgment. She recited these tales to the only friends that remained. A couple roommates from college, her yoga partner who had stopped going to yoga years ago, and one of her bridesmaids that she had at first lost contact with and, as it happens, regained contact with after whatever unspoken wound had healed and had been forgotten.
She stopped telling stories to James, her husband. It wasn’t out of malice but a love with a capital L that she did this. At first out of politeness, a refusal to bother him with trivial events, but then it became almost a game to see who would break the silence first. She had won the game, in her mind, the first month, when he asked her, almost in tears if she was mad at him. She replied, “No.”
Initially the silence had frightened James who was worried that his wife was having an affair with a much more talkative man. But he believed her and he eventually grew comfortable with her not pestering him for his stories, although occasionally he missed hearing hers.
All this time, though untold, the Story remained.
The Story gave much of itself to the stories Sylvia told of the boys, packing sack lunches of jokes, combing unkempt wisdoms and fixing little teenage catharses.
When the Story did, from time to time, leap from her mouth to the ears of friends or house guests, Sylvia would stop short at the end. She had repeated the hope of returning to South Africa thousands of times and now, upon coming to it she would grow quiet and would simply say, “It was a lovely time in my life.”
A painful maturity came to Sylvia and to the Story, an understanding of what Love with a capital L actually meant: that despite the overwhelming desire for one to be “out there”, one must remain “here” for the ones they love. That certain parts of who you are, that you thought were so essential to you, are oftentimes the first thing you needed to sacrifice. Adulthood was about sacrifice. Love was about sacrifice. And she did Love the boys and her husband. It was not a hopeless resignation that Sylvia packed lunches and combed hair and fixed beds, it was out
of love with a capital L.
And the Story, like an old comfortable friend, quietly sat in the front windows in Sylvia’s mind, sipping tea, reading books, waiting. It did not feel old, no, a story about a twenty-two year old woman could never feel old, but Sylvia somehow felt old in telling it. Fifty. More time had passed between now and Story than the length of time between the Story and her birth. It ached in her, like old tired bones or a scar that doesn’t quite heal. These days, she, too, sat in front of her window and sipped tea waiting for her sons and her husband. She did love them. Capital L.
At times, she would stare at herself through the Story like a mirror, and the hope of returning to South Africa seemed like such a bold lie. It was as if, over the years, she had taken a bit of herself and smashed it against the ground with each telling of the Story and now, in her fifties, on her hands and knees trying to pick up all the lost, scattered pieces she could see all the way down the long line of her life and see the girl she was release a cold sigh of disappointment at the sight of her now. Just a housewife. Just a mother. Just trivial things. And the thought of it wrenched her stomach into knots.
It was with this sadness that she broke her silence with James. Initially, being quite rude to him and then weeping over how old she felt and how old he made her feel. James touched her cheek and then held her for a long time.
When they had returned to silence, James offered a thought.
Perhaps she should write. Perhaps carrying around so many stories was tiresome—as it would have been to him. Perhaps, maybe, she should put pen to paper and perhaps this would ease a little bit of her sadness and frustration.
Sylvia thought this was a great idea.
Sylvia sat alone on a quiet evening in the autumn. James was away on a business trip to Seattle, a meeting with some very uninteresting people. James Jr. was away, finishing his senior year in college, or as she would tell her friends “studying so hard to be so successful that he doesn’t have to talk to another living soul again.” Steven was out playing with his new band, The Fucksticks, a name that Sylvia refused to say and in telling stories about Steven to her friends changed the name of the band to The Funsticks. He would be gone all weekend.
Everyone was gone. She had the whole house to herself.
On this evening in October Sylvia poured herself a cup of coffee and sat quietly at the dining room table with a legal pad and she began to write the Story.
She had put it off for some time. It had been roughly six years since James had given her the idea. She took comfort in the thought of the action, the act of writing it out, but for years she remained apprehensive to actually doing it. Perhaps, she thought, she was worried about not doing the Story justice, that she would disappoint it. Or, maybe, she was worried that when it was finally out on the page exactly as she had told it she would feel less for it, that it would be small to her. Another trivial thing. She couldn’t bear the thought of carrying something so heavy with feeling, so abundant of emotion, so full to the brim of so much of herself and then to see it so diminished on ink and paper.
The real reason she had spent years holding on to it, relishing and fearing the thought of writing it, was because she knew without thinking it that when she did, it would be the last time she told it.
She sat at the dining room table and put the pen to the page and waited. The coffee steamed and the kitchen clock on her oven blinked as the seconds and minutes sped by.
Then, like an old friend, the Story reached for her hand and both dove into the thing together.
How quickly the Story moved from her lips the hundred times she had recited it but how burdensome it was to come out through her unused wrists and fingers! Her hand cramped as her ball point sped across the yellow legal pad. The coffee was now all gone and the sun was now coming up. The Story was being born. The father was the memory; her mind, the womb; each telling, an exercise in preparation as the thing gestated for thirty two wonderful years and culminating in this labor of love, this act of finally giving permanent breath to a thing that had given Sylvia reason to breathe. And how the sun rose full through the windows of her dining room like a spotlight on the scattered pages on her dining room table. And how the birds singing and the cars outside starting for the day acted as a symphony that heralded the arrival of this simple creation that in so many more ways had made her who she was.
Finally, at 8 o’clock on a crisp October morning, she was here and how beautiful she was! Sylvia’s worry at her own disappointment seemed so silly now as she read and re-read all fifty five glorious yellow pages. She should be starting her day now, but she was too in love to sleep. She caressed the faded marks where her pen lost ink and pressed her fingers to the pressure marks where she emboldened words for special emphasis. She was fully there in the likeness that she had imagined: soft sweet smelling plot structure, wispy metaphors like gently clinging hairs, paragraph indentations like first shallow breaths, every word and letter, like counting ten fingers and ten toes, all accounted for. Eyes dotted and tees crossed.
The only mistake she made was at the very end. The horizontal line that crossed through the phrase stood black and heavy with pressure from her pen. The phrase she had written was, “It was a lovely time in my life.”
Written beneath it, a hasty simple promise:
“Someday I will go back there.”
In her late sixties now, Sylvia’s rambunctiousness eased and she tended to listen more.
When the grandchildren were born, James started to take an affinity to telling stories himself. He told fictions about dragons and bugs and fairies. He would destroy worlds with his grandsons playing on the floor and sit on loveseats and make-up legends that his granddaughters would marvel at, mouths open, eyes wide. Retired, with a small savings and a generous pension and very little to worry about, James, without notice, transformed into the person that Sylvia always wanted him to be and she took great enjoyment in seeing this man—a man that through her whole life was so much more of a man than a human being—become a person.
She would sit and have coffee with her daughter-in-law, James Jr.’s wife: a bright one, with spinning sarcastic eyes with a French-ish name that Sylvia always mispronounced. She listened patiently to the stories about her grandchildren. First steps and first teeth, tiny dirty feet and tiny dirty noses, stories uttered with such importance but so similar to the stories of Steven’s first step and James Jr.’s first tooth as to be tiring and inane… the same stories that mothers have heard from daughters all the way down to the first story Eve told God of Cain’s first step and Abel’s first tooth.
Sylvia would sit and listen, even to the young women who Steven brought home, very beautiful but very fragile women who he never quite called his girlfriends. They would sit and wring their yellowed fingers and sip nervously at water glasses and eventually, like pulling teeth, Sylvia would get them to speak at length about one thing or another, even if it was simply a story about a bar fight they saw or how their own mothers never cooked dinner like these.
She also listened to stories from the girls she volunteered with at Paws. She would sit in bars with these young chubby girls, sipping club soda, listening to them spin scattered and almost vicious tales about other even chubbier girls that they insisted were their friends.
Though she was hardly judgmental, Sylvia felt as though the conversation with these young ones was empty of something. A conversation would switch too quickly before it reached a point. A tale would waiver abruptly and apologetically and then suddenly be abandoned. Cell phone screens brightening cold-eyed faces would end a conversation entirely and a new one would be picked up before any climax or resolution.
All the stories these young ones told were of seeing or hearing or baring witness to things. No one told stories of what they did. No stories were told of how someone somehow in some way changed.
When asked by these younger women about stories of her past, she would smile and nod but, strangely, have very little to say.
What Sylvia unknowingly knew had come to pass. She hardly sat with the Story anymore and she never told it again to another living soul. The Story, of course, remained with her, at first as a member of her books and magazines on her bedside table and later, during a spring cleaning, as a denizen of a folder of mementos she collected: photographs, concert tickets, and small dried flowers pressed between books given to her by James. Later the Story moved to a shoebox next to the fireproof safe where James kept important documents, like their wills, their insurance policies. Their unstamped passports.
At night she would crawl out of bed and turn on the lap top that James Jr. had bought her and sit in the living room and write little anecdotes about her day. A little habit that she had taken up since she had written the Story to help her get some sleep. Occasionally, on some very late and lonely nights, she would sit and look at their little bank accounts and budget the month’s expenses. She would check in on friends on various social websites, sending messages and liking pictures. She would go to travel websites and look up the airfare prices. Just out of
Into her later years, Sylvia collected stories on her little computer, though she never told them to anyone. One story that stuck out was the night that Steven drunkenly returned to their home and wept to her about being a bad son. A self-imposed guilt which she had to clarify to him with some force that she never actually thought was true. It was that night that Steven stopped drinking for good and without surprise, his music improved.
Another was how, when James Jr. and her daughter-in-law with the odd French name were divorcing, she took the grandchildren, without their phones or any video game devices, and went on a hike through Oak Park and she told them about her time there, how she enjoyed her education and how she met their grandfather. She marked this small trip as the first time that her grandchildren thought of her as a person the youngest, Etienne, called her up every Sunday just to say hello.
And yet another story about how she called a tow truck because the car wouldn’t start and she tried nearly everything and how the trucker, a terrifyingly huge man, realized the problem, fixed it quickly and then resisted when she tried to give him money and how much his laugh sounded like a chittering chipmunk when she started to tuck twenties into his shirt pocket.
And yet another story about running into her old sweet friend from college, Babs, who now called herself Babi, a sweet pancake-faced woman who was her partner in a Literature class some ages ago. Babi recognized her instantly on the sidewalk and after a long conversation standing in front of the Jewel, shopping bags in one woman’s hand and an old beat up gym bag in the other’s, the two started a book club, although it was more of a weekly coffee date where they lamented how they don’t read anymore and talked about reality TV.
And yet another story about how she met Paul, and how her heart broke at the sight of him. A six week old and undernourished dog, kept in a cage of his own filth by unlicensed breeders. She tended his matted hair and washed his mangy skin and dropped medicine in his ears and how though she did admit that he was—as her co-workers called it–retarded, following her around the shelter the way he did, she knew that he needed her desperately and she had to take him home.
And yet another story about the night of her seventy-eighth birthday, when neither James nor James Jr. nor Steven or little Etienne had called or visited and how she returned from Paws to a near-heart attack where the entire family, including her ex-daughter-in-law, her chubby coworkers and Babi, had made a huge candle-lit supper of baked macaroni and cheese and portabella mushroom burgers.
And another story about how she and James—long before she got terribly sick—had a walk down Damen Avenue, and at the light where Irving and Damen and Lincoln met, they passionately kissed for a long time and how some boys who were out drinking whistled and hollered at them and how James, in an odd but heroic moment, shouted after them that he loved her more than the world itself and they would be so lucky to have what he had.
By the very, very end, Sylvia considered herself quite lucky.
Upon the insistence of his brother, because he clearly had fucking nothing to do, Steven was to start clearing out the house on Oakley Street. It had been a hard summer, in fact, the hardest summer. The first funeral was in June and, like clockwork, the following funeral was in August.
Steven had brought along Paul, who he figured would enjoy a visit to his old home. Steven insisted on taking the dog, after the meeting with the attorney on Tuesday who informed them, as stated in their father’s will, the animal would be returned to Paws. Steven knew his mother would have never approved, though the chubby girls at Paws were kind enough, he knew that she would have wanted Paul to stay with family. His nieces were both allergic to dogs, so Steven took it upon himself to take on this burden. Not that Steven disliked Paul, but Paul seemed to really, really like Steven.
It was fucking unfair, though, that Steven should be troubled with starting this project alone: the final organizing of the Oakley Street house. The whole thing was enough to send him to the liquor store but he rolled the gold coin around his pocket and with a heavy heart started to go through his dead parents’ things.
It was Steven who first read the Story.
He had found it next to the safe where his father kept many documents. The crinkled yellow pages were stacked neatly in a shoebox underneath a couple of trashy romance novels, a wooden box with a pig carved on the top and a series of old photographs and some cheap earrings that Steven recognized was a Christmas present he had given her over thirty years ago.
He lifted the pages up to his face and for the first time in months, he heard his mother’s voice.
The Story, though unread or unheard for years, was a potent tale. It raised shining similes and steadied tropes and mastered the heaving turning points like a ship finally returning to the ocean. Every detail, that for sixty years had always been the details that Sylvia’s memory clung to, were accounted for: the whites of the teeth of the smiling South African girl, the soles of her feet, her pregnant vulnerability, her fear at being on the streets, Sylvia’s lie in her paperwork, her quick thinking, how she looked into the eyes of the girl and, in a moment, that she acknowledged was the single most spiritual moment of her whole life, saw herself in another.
Steven lifted cigarette after cigarette to his lips, lying on the floor of his parents’ bedroom and after reading every page, wept and wept and wept.
He could not continue his task. He could barely lift himself up to leave the place. All he could do was place his hand on Paul’s head who had in the past hour burrowed himself into Steven’s lap.
Steven carried the yellow pages to James Jr.’s house, and the brother paused at his work, sat with his brother in the living room and read the pages.
The Story, like all good stories, is a picture of a moment when a person changes. It is every detail leading up to that change, that choice. The Story, like all good stories, was a window. A way for a person to see not only what had happened before but to see what had happened through the eyes and the ears and the hands and the heart of another. The Story, like all good stories, is a lighthouse. A beacon that is turned on and flashes from night to night, over year after year after year, “I am here! You are here!”
For the brothers, this picture of their young mother, this window into her hopes and dreams and triumphs and despairs, this beacon that shouted even long after her pen had scraped paper to declare “I was here! You are here!” was paramount. Though it was a simple story, to them, at this particular time it stood for all the miraculous things about being human and being alive.
The brothers sat in silence and James Jr. took off his glasses and wept and wept and wept and Steven got up and held his brother for a long while.
From then on, the Story continued on in a much abridged form as a partner with a new story about Steven and James Jr. connecting with their mother upon finding the yellow pages. The Story considered this new tale to be a son in a way, though it was a masculine story, and too much to the point, and the important detail about the deep love between the brothers was often kept from the casual telling.
It was carried by Steven and told from girlfriend to girlfriend until he met one that he loved with a Capital L, a young woman with a long crooked nose and eyes as kind as his mother’s. She read the yellow legal pad pages in Steven’s loft apartment, sitting with him one long night with tea and their retarded dog Paul. She even helped him turn some of the prose into lyrics for a song that Steven wrote, that hardly anyone heard or even remembered.
Etienne, who had particularly loved his grandmother very much, passed the Story on to his own children who cared little about great-grandma Sylvia or anything about an old country once named South Africa. The Story had aged significantly and like all aged creatures shrunk to just six or so phrases: a fable with a moral on how one person could change another person’s life in even a small way.
The Story was finally told for the last time by Etienne’s youngest daughter, Rosemary, a talkative child with a flighty demeanor who had a penchant for drinking wine, although she never touched the hard stuff. At this point, old and weary and missing Sylvia, the Story came out for one last time in thirteen short words, no more than a whispered question through Rosemary’s pursed wine-red lips at a dinner party:
“I think my great-grandmother visited South Africa once, I’m not too sure.”
About the Author
Rammel Chan is a writer and actor based in Chicago. He has performed at The Goodman Theatre, The Second City, Steppenwolf and Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee, among others. He is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago, the Second City Writing Program and the Second City Conservatory. He is an alumnus of the sketch group Robot vs. Dinosaur and a proud recipient of the 2015 Bob Curry Fellowship. His film and television credits include Cold War, Patriot, Chicago Justice and the NYTVF limited series The Jamz on Netflix. He is reprising his role in the West Coast Premiere of “King of the Yees” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles in July.