Up the Stairs | The New Yorker

In fourth grade, I spent a summer living with my grandparents. Granddad would often recline in bed, his right leg cocked, and regale me with stories like an aging son of the manor. When he was about thirteen, he fled famine in Shandong and came to Liaoning Province. He was big for his age, which made his hunger all the more ferocious. “Whenever I tried to stand up straight,” he said, “I felt like someone was wringing my gut.” A shop owner noticed his physique and asked him to lift a hundred-pound bag of rice. “I managed to get it over my head. My heart felt ready to jump out of my mouth.” The man hired him as a lackey at his grain store. Not only could Granddad finally eat his fill; he also quickly learned how to use an abacus, handle sales, keep accounts, and even take care of the shop owner’s children. “The only downside was that there were so many of them. There wasn’t space for me. After closing each night, I took the doors down and threw some bedding over them.” When the People’s Liberation Army reached Shenyang, the shop was commandeered and turned into a people’s granary. The owner was now just another lackey, and Granddad was put in charge of him. “He was dead within a few years. I gave his wife two months of my wages. I never saw the family again.”

As Granddad told me this story, my eyes landed on a photo he kept on the sideboard. He’d been very handsome when he was young, with an aquiline nose that made his features particularly dashing.

Soon, Granddad was promoted to Grain Center Chief of Shenyang’s Tiexi district. Around this time, my grandma started selling fabric at the Tiexi Department Store. “She was an unforgettable sight, like a dancer,” Granddad said. (As he told me this story, Grandma was making us zhajiang noodles.) “No matter how much material you wanted, she’d cut it perfectly, not an inch more or less.” As model workers, the couple were taken on a tour of Hangzhou and Suzhou. The year after that, they got married, and over the next dozen years they had my uncle, my mother, and my aunt. Granddad became the chairman of the Tiexi Grain Bureau labor union, in charge of workers’ benefits and cultural activities. Everyone respected him, and he had no enemies.

Granddad spent his first year of retirement gardening. The following year, at the age of sixty-one, he had a heart attack. There were no warning signs. He didn’t drink, and rarely smoked. My mother found him stuck full of tubes at the hospital. The doctor said that his arteries were clogged, and he needed surgery; he had a one-in-ten chance of surviving. Despite being a staunch atheist, my mother knelt in the hospital corridor and prayed to the heavens: “Please give me just a little more time with my father. Even ten years would be enough. By then his grandchildren will be in school, old enough to remember what he looks like. I’ll be a better daughter.” Granddad took a turn for the better that night, and he was conscious again by morning. The operation was a success. He emerged from the hospital looking more or less the same as when he entered it. The doctor said that he’d have to quit smoking, and to take extra care doing two things: using a squat toilet and going up the stairs.

The afternoon I finished my final exams in junior high, in the summer of 1999, my mother knocked on my door and came into my bedroom. She asked how my exams had gone. Terrible, I said, because I hated school, I hated exams, and I thought I’d probably gone off topic in my essay. My mother was very calm. She hadn’t come to pick a fight, she said. “Your Granddad died last week. I didn’t want to distract you from your exams. He had another heart attack.” It had been exactly ten years since his first one. “My heart is breaking.”

Granddad had apparently taken the bus quite a distance and walked very far that day, to reach a certain apartment building. My mother said no one in our family knew of this place, nor had we ever heard Granddad mention it. On the eighth floor of this building lived a woman who was also in her seventies. The elevator was broken. Step by step, Granddad climbed up seven flights of stairs and knocked on her door. According to the investigation that followed, the woman was shocked. She said it had been decades since she and Granddad had seen each other, but she knew who he was right away. He smiled, and looked like he was about to speak, but before he could get the first word out he crashed to her living-room floor, and a few seconds later stopped breathing. The woman was the only witness.

The investigation lasted more than a month. We learned from the report that she’d been a cashier at the grain store more than forty years earlier. Not one person in my family wanted to know anything more about her. Around the time that I enrolled in high school, my mother told me that the investigation had ended. As I suspected, the woman had been telling the truth. Granddad climbed up the stairs, and then he died. That’s all there was to it. ♦

(Translated, from the Chinese, by Jeremy Tiang.)

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