Thursday, October 19, 2017
“Tell me a story,” the little girlchild said.
Her name is Madelyn Nguyen, and she can have anything she wants from me.
But I’ll tell you a story, instead, the story of Madelyn Nguyen’s stellar origins – and how they foretell her perfect destiny: Madelyn Nguyen’s always gonna win.
I have faith in nothing men swear faith to, and yet I believe beyond every doubt in this simple proposition: Madelyn Nguyen is always going to win.
I’ve felt that way since I met her, six months ago. She was just thirty-nine months old then, with her nose and my knee about the same distance from the floor. How she got the name Madelyn I don’t know, but she’s as Viet as Viet kids get: Golden skin and dark, penetrating eyes and enough rich, black hair, that, had it been distributed more equally, every bald-headed baby in the mall could start to look halfway human.
And she was awake then, too, already – the youngest all-the-way-self-aware child I’ve ever met. She was with her cousin – a year older than her, but you’d never guess it except by his size. It wasn’t so much that she was bossy but that she was clueful and he was simply rueful: She knew what she wanted, and he knew he didn’t want to fall too embarrassingly far behind.
They were with their parents, of course, two very loving, very involved, very indulgent Viet couples, but it was Madelyn Nguyen who led the troupe to my world, the Choo Choo Train kiosk at the Arrowhead Mall in suburban Phoenix, and it was Madelyn Nguyen who negotiated our transactions – everything but the credit card.
She took care about it, though. She walked all around the kiosk, lost in absent-minded concentration as she took everything in: The train, me in my Loco Willie outfit, all the candy and merchandise in the glass case – placed conveniently just at her eye-level.
Her eyes lit up when she saw the girly pink Engineer’s costume: A pink Engineer’s hat, a pink bandanna and a wooden train whistle, all for just twenty bucks.
Railway robbery, you say? Don’t buy your candy at the movie theater, bub. We sell train rides. The merch goes at full retail, buy it or don’t. But everything at the Choo Choo Train kiosk is sold by the world’s very best closers – kids – so we move a lot of train gear despite the prices.
And that’s how Madelyn Nguyen got her train hat. It’s also how her cousin got his, in boyish blue like mine, even though he had zero actual interest in the train. He was so convinced that she was going to be treated but he would be left out that he demanded equal treatment for no good reason. When the two of them were fitted out in their full kits, Madelyn Nguyen seemed fully-ready to drive the train, where her poor cousin looked like he was trying to figure out how to say, “What just happened?”
What happened is this: No one else can win if Madelyn Nguyen already did – and Madelyn Nguyen’s always gonna win.
They rode the train, of course. You drop forty bucks for hats, the train ride’s on me. She made her cousin’s family ride in the coal tender, right behind the engine, while she claimed the bright red caboose for her clan. Again, nothing bossy. It’s just easy to do things her way – not easier, as an acquiescence to tyranny – just easy: Madelyn Nguyen knows what she wants, and she knows what she wants so quickly and so well that it’s easy and natural and fun to follow her lead.
She was exactly right in her dispositions, in any case. She had foreseen that the two families would be able to wave at each other as we rounded corners. What she didn’t anticipate is a train that can go in circles. There’s a huge open space back by Dick’s Sporting Goods, and I can drive the train in tight little loops back there.
And all the light in the universe starts and ends in Madelyn Nguyen’s eyes when the train goes into circles. The speed is nothing, slower than your normal walking pace, but, still, you can feel your body being thrown outward against the walls of the wooden cars. She was standing at the back of the caboose, bracing herself with her hands, looking for all the world like a real freight-train conductor – “You know, the short one with the pink hat” – when the train’s vast engine swung into her view.
I swear she squealed. It wasn’t laughter so much as the keening of an uncontained delight, a perfect expression of perfect appreciation for the greatest gift the universe can bring to an eager young mind: The unexpected.
I can drive that train in circles so tight that the engine seems to creep past the end of the caboose, and she could not get enough of that spectacle. Everyone was waving at everyone else, the parents trying to capture fleeting time by cell-phone video, but Madelyn Nguyen’s eyes were locked with mine, and I knew then what I know now – what I’ll know forever:
Madelyn Nguyen’s always gonna win.
She left that day with a Frequent Rider Card, too – fifteen pre-paid rides at a forty-percent discount, like a health-club plan for Traindancers – but her cousin was lucky enough to escape that fate. And I’ve driven her – her and her dad usually – once or twice a week ever since.
“What if–?” I said, stepping across the space between the engine and the coal tender to join her and her folks back in the little alcove I call The Scroungy Lounge of Depressing Browns. “What if I were to tell you the story of you?”
She gave me a look of arm-crossed skepticism, but I think that was more pose than portent. She knows enough to suspect it when she’s being teased, but the kid is still just forty-five months old: She has not soiled her soul with more-comprehensive doubts about people – which argues that her folks have given her no reason to doubt them.
“Do you think I can’t do it? The world is my sock-puppet, kiddo. It does what I tell it to do.” That would be jawbone to your ears – but a Carney without jawbone is just a clerk. And when you’re not even four years old – when, even when you’re sitting on the world’s lowest Ottoman, your feet still don’t touch the floor – it’s not jawbone, it’s the golden threads of the mythos, the everstory, spun up just now, just for you – just for your ears.
I stayed on my feet, standing between the train and their seats. It’s easier for me to talk that way, and I needed to keep an eye on the kiosk, anyway. It was slow – Thursday night at the mall – but if you’re not selling, you’re not selling.
Looking at Madelyn Nguyen’s mom, I said, “You guys met at a church dance?” Not such a leap – her own father would have delivered full value, as promised, on their wedding day – but I wanted her buy-in to talk to them. I say the most outlandish things to their daughter all the time, and dad indulges me in good humor, but I actually do try to be civilized about all the personal and emotional boundaries I tear through. If it helps, you can think of this little dance as a sort of graduated, codified impropriety – pushy but polite. In any case, she smiled sweetly, and that’s more than license enough for me.
To Madelyn Nguyen, I said, “So your parents went to the same dance. Do you understand what that is?”
“Like a ball?” Hail Disney! – by no mere chance the next door neighbor to the Choo Choo Train kiosk.
“Exactly. They went to a grand ball, but they were in opposite corners of the ballroom at first. They couldn’t see each other – but it was so crowded that they couldn’t see much of anything at all.”
She said, “It’s easier to see if you crouch down.” Forty-five months old and she’s already a Loco Engineer. Totally loco, of course, but solid engineering – from her point of view.
“Oh, but Madelyn Nguyen, Madelyn Nguyen, Madelyn Nguyen – they had to see each other. They were beautiful, resplendent, perfect – perfect seeds perfectly sown, perfectly cultivated, perfectly grown – two giants of the spirit who outshone everyone there.”
I was pacing back and forth before her, and she had scootched back to sit cross-legged on the Ottoman, leaning forward on her forearms.
“How did they find each other? How could they miss each other? It was as if that ball had been thrown for those two alone: Once they spotted each other, it seemed as though they could see nothing and no one else.”
Mom was invested in the story, too, while dad wore the easy smirk of self-confident fatherhood.
“They knew – do you get that? They knew from the very first. In their hearts, in that instant when they first caught sight of each other across the room, they knew every word of the story I’m telling you now. They knew each other as if they had been raised in the same home. They knew each other’s parents simply from having known their own. And do you want to hear the most amazing thing?”
As it turns out, everyone always does.
“In the midst of that blinding flash of recognition, they caught the briefest glimpse of their parents’ grand-daughter.”
“That’s me!” Forty-five months old.
“But, still, it took them forever to get together. They were wise, which made them deliberate. And they wanted their marriage to last like their own parents’ families had, so they took their time getting to know each other. They swirled around each other as they swirled around the dance floor, getting a little closer each time around.”
I took a moment to hold my chin, thus to give the matter further thought. “There ain’t no attraction like mutual attraction, but things that crash together smash all apart.” Madelyn Nguyen was nodding. Not-quite-four-year-olds know all about smashing things. “The trick to this kind of ballroom dancing is to get closer and closer without tearing each other apart.”
I held my arms out wide. “So that’s what they did. They got closer and closer and they got to know each other – and to love each other – better and better. And the closer they got, the more attracted they were to each other – and that just brought them that much closer together.”
Mom was nestled under dad’s arm by now, and that was just right with me.
“But you can only dance together for so long before your dance becomes a romance. So then, finally, did they crash together, smash together, become one with one another – marry each other. And when they did, do you know what happened next?”
Madelyn Nguyen shrugged, and she invested everything she had in it.
“You happened next. They saw you when they met, and part of what brought them together, after all that time dancing around each other, was their love for you: They couldn’t wait to meet you.”
The best part of that story, allowing for all the liberties I’d taken, is that I know it’s true. Each one of them had one chance to get marriage right, and each one of them did the job perfectly.Madelyn Nguyen sat very still for a long time, a finger by her mouth, her eyes aimed nowhere, lost in thought. She said, “It sounds kind of like the neutron stars.” Forty-five months old.
“Eleven billion years, your parents courted, just to make sure they were setting a good example for you.” That was a joke for the grown-ups, but Madelyn Nguyen doesn’t bother too much about sounds she can’t quite process yet. She shines from the inside-out – like a star, not a moon – so what she says matters to her much more than what she hears.
And a lot of kids will know about the collision of nearby neutron stars observed this summer and reported in this news just this week. But most of those kids will be nerds – hysterically over-prepared regurgitators of book-learning. Madelyn Nguyen sees the world with her own eyes – and that’s why she always wins.
“When the stars crashed together,” she said, “they made an Earth of gold!”
“If all the gold was in a ball, the ball would be bigger than our whole planet!”
I held my arms out, palms up. “See? That’s what happened. Your mom and dad met and merged and melded and married, and then they spun up a ball of gold more precious than the Earth itself.”
She was shy, and she has every right to be. Just because you’re the real deal – not some petrified poindexter, but the little Loco Engineer in the pink hat who can see around every corner – that doesn’t mean you don’t still get to be an almost-four-year-old, too. “Does that mean me?”
I smiled. Madelyn Nguyen is always going to win.
I said, “When stars collude to collide, a brilliant new star is born – and nothing, child, will ever dim that light.”
Madelyn Nguyen smiled – and the universe smiled accordingly. You should, too. When she wins, we all do.