There have always been two stories in my family. There was the story we were told first, and the story we were told later. The story that was told boldly for all to see, and the story that was only whispered to us in private. The one they say is the truth, and the one everyone else says is the truth. I present them both here to you so you can decide for yourself.
My grandfather was a kind and pious man who lost his family in the war. He was only a low-ranking soldier and had wanted to go into the clergy before the war. His nickname as a soldier was “the tanner” because he held the most skill at shining boots. My grandfather would often smuggle families to the border for no money at all, sometimes giving them what little he had in his pocket. He maintained a low profile throughout the country’s long slog and was able to flee after the military dictatorship fell. He and his family made it to America with only the clothes on their backs and the grace of God.
Or my grandfather was a war criminal. Conscripted into the army right out of primary school, he rose into rank after a savage military coup. He was nicknamed “the tanner” because he had a habit of skinning dissidents and hanging their hides up as a warning to others. He was a monster, sending thousands to their deaths by firing squad. Others he would torture with hope, promising them safe passage out of the country in exchange for their life savings. Once he had their money, he would have them secretly executed instead. He fled just before the military power fell, using stolen wealth to pad his family’s passage to America.
My grandfather was a great organizer for the community formed by refugees from his home country. He was a humble and pious man who only wanted to rebuild the shreds of his culture. He served as a matchmaker, counselor, mediator, everything they needed. He donated every cent to the church, forgoing luxuries for his own family so that all could have a place to worship.
Or, once arriving at America with a new identity, my grandfather set about insinuating himself into the diaspora of our home country. He became a powerful figure in the church and used these connections to make himself wealthy. When he regained a small fraction of the power that had been lost to him, he once again turned tyrant. He made sure every business deal cut him in. He loaned out money at exorbitant rates and used the debt to blackmail people into doing what he wanted. He offered a service to unwed mothers to adopt out their children, and continued to collect a “maintenance fee” from the poor girls after burying their infants in unmarked graves. He bullied good people into giving up their goods and services for free, and then would turn around and donate them to the church in order to build up his public image.
My grandfather was a beloved patriarch who worked hard to see his children succeed. He gave them money for school, made sure they grew up into respectful adults. His wife was his beloved companion for many years, providing support through the tragic death of their second son through a hunting accident. My mother was the apple of his eye, he sobbed like a child the day she carelessly lost two fingernails. He spoiled his grandchildren rotten, giving them expensive gifts and bouncing them on his knee.
Or my family grew up in the shadow of my grandfather. My grandmother was a cowed, brutalized woman who was afraid to say a single word in her husband’s presence. My grandfather abused all of his children, bullying his second son to the point that he committed suicide with a gunshot to the head. Grandfather retained absolute control of his children’s lives, dictating who they could see, what they ate, even what they wore. He once tore out two of my mother’s fingernails and called her a whore because she wore the wrong shade of nail polish. He would frequently use corporal punishment on his own grandchildren while their parents, his own children, were too frightened to intervene.
When he turned 82, my grandfather became the victim of a terrible case of mistaken identity. He had briefly loaned his papers to another soldier, who stole his identity and went on to commit terrible deeds in his name. My grandfather was a kind, gentle, and loving pillar of his community. The reform government of his home country was reeling from a lack of unity. They needed a symbol, something or someone they could hold responsible for the war and destroy. My grandfather just so happened to be the unlucky someone.
Or my grandfather was 82 when they finally flushed him out. The tattered remains of our home country pulled together and created a tribunal. They were a task force sent to reap justice for the monsters that had gutted and raped their own country. My grandfather had been monitored for years before they moved in. He’d attempted to throw anyone off his trail by disguising a body as himself and setting it on fire. DNA testing had ruled it out, though, and the net began closing in.
My grandfather called me in the middle of the night from a disposable phone. Begged for my help. I was his only grandchild in the area, and he needed me right this second. I got into my car and drove to the motel he’d called from. The family house was being watched by the tribunal. My grandmother had died years before, and now my grandfather was all alone.
My grandfather was shaking as he got into the car. In my whole life, I had never seen him tremble. Now he did as he said the soldiers had conspired with local police forces to capture him, to ship him back to the old country in chains to answer for what others did. He was too old, he would not survive the journey. He had arranged with a friend to stay in a safe house for a while. My grandfather did not have a lot of time left. All he wanted to do was die a free man and be buried next to my grandmother. I understood that, didn’t I?
As a loyal grandchild, I drove all night to the point where his friend stood to meet him. Before grandfather got into the other car, he held me and said that he had always tried to do the right thing and even if he hadn’t been perfect, he truly believed in doing the best thing he could. He kissed me on the cheek and left a bit of money in my hand and then he drove off and I never saw him again.
Or my grandfather received a call on the way to his friend, with much cursing and abuse on his end. The friend was being watched as well. The safe house was no longer safe. All his ill-gotten money could not buy him security now.
As my grandfather punched through his contact list, I thought. And after he had hung up from the last dead end, I spoke.
I said I had friends. Connections. I could drive him over the state border to a friend’s house, someone who lived off the grid. The feds would never suspect it.
Grandfather had never put much stock in my intelligence, but desperate times call for desperate measures. He actually praised the slickness of my plan, finally proclaiming I resembled him in some aspect. He hardly even gave pause when I told him I would have to hide him in the trunk to pass border inspections.
I made sure his arthritic body would be comfortable as I could make it. I gave him plenty of blankets, and made his own coat into a pillow. I closed the lid on him gently.
I drove for a long time, very near the state border, until I found what I was looking for.
I drove up to the waterside and parked on a boat ramp. I put the car in neutral and got out.
No sound from the trunk. I kicked the bumper of the car. Once, twice. The car started to roll.
I heard some noise from the trunk as the car glided down the ramp and hit the water, air gushing out of the frame in great big whooshes. I watched the retreating tail of my car as I heard my grandfather frantically beating against the interior. I condemned him to a frightened, helpless death like he had done so many others.
Now it is time to tally up, my friend.
In one story, I see my grandfather off with a kiss.
In another, I see him off with a kick.
Now tell me, which do you chose?