An old man approached me at the gym as I was catching my breath between sets on the leg press. As I pulled the tiny speaker from my left ear to give him precisely half of my attention, I more than half expected to hear something about the amount of weight I had on the machine. Which I did, sort of, because it was a lot, relatively. He told me, with his hazy, exotropic eyes twinkling, that his ninety-one-year-old cousin does the same amount of weight. That’s impressive, I said reflexively, wondering if his comment had a punchline and why he was sharing this information in my direction, rather than, I don’t know, saving it to share the other way round, to his ninety-one-year-old cousin, perhaps, where and whoever he was. You know, tell the old guy he’s doing the same as the young guy and bla bla bla ha ha. His mouth and lungs made some more words about his cousin that traveled to my ear and died there, well short of my memory. But in those little linguistic deaths it became more or less apparent that there was in fact no punchline, only a useless fact about another human being and I wondered where in his seventy-plus (eighty-plus?) years he forgot that communication is sometimes described in some circles I’ve just invented as the confluence of what you mean and what you think others might think you mean, because not once in our brief exchange did he attempt to draw any sort of relevance from this useless fact that might wrap itself around our present situation. Maybe he never knew. Maybe he never cared. Maybe I know and care too much. Maybe I’m overstating it. I got on the machine and did another set, faintly meditating on whether I really meant what I said to him about hoping I could still do that when I was ninety-one.
Sometimes stories don’t matter till we tell them, and sometimes not even when we do.