by Michael Chin
1. When my grandmother finished War and Peace she started from the beginning and read it again, so entranced was she with the Russian aristocracy, with the Napoleonic Wars. With the green leather hard cover and its gold-trimmed pages.
I was so young. I had learned to read, but not to appreciate it. I preferred TV and music and video games. Asked her how words on a page—this outdated mode of storytelling—could ever compare.
You have to imagine, she said. You have to fill in the blanks.
2. My grandmother told us she was valedictorian of her class. That with the honor came a five-dollar prize, and with that the choice of her first year at college or a nice dress to go on job interviews.
I imagined her cradling a five-dollar bill. Wondered what it might equate to then, aware of the concept of inflation—sure, out of repetition, that the hamburgers we paid dollars for today would have cost a nickel in her childhood.
All this money, the world in front of her, seated at her bedside when the sun peaked through the clouds and shone through her window to light her face.
She chose the dress.
3. My grandmother told us she’d worked as a secretary for an insurance company in the city, and each month she received a pension check.
I imagined her younger. The wrinkles on her face smoothed. White hair darkened and shaded to brown, less tired, no time for afternoon naps. Faster. Capable of city walking, past panhandlers and would-be thieves.
4. She told us our grandfather had had a heart attack. That my mother and uncle were too young when he died to remember him.
And so, my mother worried her whole life, for heart issues could be hereditary. She ate carefully. Never missed a checkup.
Half a century passed before my grandmother admitted she was lying.
5. She told us the truth at the end of her life, after Mom and Dad had gone through her papers to get her affairs in order so she could move into a nursing home.
When things didn’t add up, she told us about the affair.
I imagined her boss leaning over her desk. My grandmother, not just a younger version of herself, but changed by every measure. Flirty. Vivacious. Fetching in a low-cut top, a short skirt, high heels.
He might have been young, too, but in the absence of photographs, I pictured him portly in an ill-fitting suit, a combover, nicotine stains on his fingers. I imagined him not one to court, but to coerce. Not one to seduce, but make implications about my grandmother’s job security.
I imagined my grandmother looked different to herself in the mirror after that day at the office. Or maybe there wasn’t one, identifiable time, but rather my mother was the result of one flake in a flurry, in a blizzard.
I imagined, when my mother was born, she promised her a better life. That bald little girl, sticky with goo. Promised her all of the protections and opportunities that in the same breath she knew she couldn’t provide, but maybe, just maybe, the world might afford her.
6. I read War and Peace five years after my grandmother had passed. Always said that I would. Strained my eyes to focus on page upon page, and in the blank spaces between chapters, tried to imagine what my grandmother would have imagined in the faces of men and women, dead and gone before even she was born.
All of it imagined. For this is fiction. All fairy dust and dreams and contrivance—
When my body failed me, when I couldn’t help falling asleep, that tome bent open across my chest, I imagined her like this, too.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is an alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. His chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is forthcoming 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 Iron Horse Literary Review. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.