Readers Report Back From… The Gift


A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “The Gift.”

Edited by Susan Clements:

Tomorrow. She’ll have been with us eighteen years tomorrow. After seventeen years of jumping in puddles to find the center of the earth, after seventeen years of one-sided conversations by phone, the loss of a dog, dying her hair every color on the chart, not wanting to seem like a bitch for walking so far ahead, being the only girl in the whole world without Manga, outgrowing ten pairs of ladybug galoshes—she will be an adult.

No longer will I get to explain words like “meta” and explain why the sky is blue. No longer will I be required to repair cell phones, pay their charges and replace their skins. “Oh my god” will no longer replace “Whatever.” Meeting her half way up the hall, picking her up, blowing cool kisses against her plum red cheeks, checking and re-checking her knees, all because she couldn’t hold herself upright enough running for Daddy, will not be my problem to solve any more. When she cried it seemed that I had stepped into an empty elevator shaft. The well of her shock was still so closely knit to the abyss that she dug herself out from, the place she left and rose to us.

Taking the slide in her tough-girl boots. Fussing on the left hip, sleeping on the right. Sammiches. Her first bang trim, the world’s softest inch, held cupped in my hand for fear a draft would blow it away. Hair so fine you’d get it in your eye if you leaned in, so fine she had to tie it down. Her first nap. Each little breath, so quick and yet forever between. Her breath smelled like St. Peter had only just closed the door. Eighteen. Leaving me. I know it.

No more joking about screening her boyfriends, never get to tease her again about having boyfriends come over, never get to suggest that she include Scott, the neighbor boy, in hula hoops.

Tomorrow. She’ll have been with us eighteen years tomorrow, but I’ve known her at least twice that long.

— Jeffrey Bennett

* * *

She was fumbling at the register, counting out dollars, digging in her bag for change, sweating all the small things, the ones tugging at her jacket sleeves. “Just—one second. I just—I’m sure I have enough.” She didn’t.

“Mommy, can I have peanut butter cups please?”

“Not now—maybe next week, okay?”

When she gave up looking for change, she sighed and pushed her hair back off of her forehead. She picked up the shampoo and the new package of nylons. “I won’t be getting these today.” The spotty young man nodded and pressed some buttons. He handed her two pennies in change and her receipt. She took up her bags and gave one bag to each child to carry.

Her face was hot and she felt embarrassed at being unable to provide more than the bare minimum—for not being able to buy nylons whenever she wanted.

“Miss?” She ignored it, shoulders slumped as she walked. “Miss!” She heard jogging and then felt a tap on her shoulder. The children turned around as she did, looking up, up, up at a very tall man who was holding a bag. He jiggled it a little. “I think this is yours.”

She counted her bags quickly. “No, you’re mistaken. I have all mine.”

“No—it’s yours. Really. Take it.”

She stood for a moment, staring, her eyes fading away as she thought of the meaning of the word “charity.” But when she focused again and looked back up in his face, he had a little smile that said he would not give up until she took it. She took it and carried it out to the car, where she piled the children in and placed the groceries into the trunk.

When she was home, she opened it: a package of peanut butter cups for each child, the pair of nylons, her favorite shampoo.

— Serena McNair

* * *

The moral of 2009 remains No one ever said it was gonna be easy out there in The Recession so we caravanned west through the cracked jaws of winter by beatertruck and stationwagon, the steaming roads all destroyed by ice and the cities emptying like busted wasp hives in the willowy fog of our exhaust. And the 2010 moral became All Dreams Come True in The Bay.

Which did in fact come true, and the cold sky split open above Berkeley and cones of thunder ignited in the redwoods.  But soon no more morals were tattooed by consensus at Jupiter and Triple Rock and attendance dwindled at the basement shows, the generator installations in the deep woods and the acolytical gatherings at unguarded reference desks during the extreme early morning hours.

So the moral of 2011 is Just two line cooks smoking in the rain, their rippling reflections orphaned on sidewalks by sunbeams through halls of a wrecking-balled ruin. That moral of twenty eleven turned out to be I don’t think you’re even operating under the correct definition of moral and Just sleep summers in backyards and winters in art studios.

The trailing moral of the entire last decade crystallized as the last six tracks of the Zola Jesus LP. It was that neon-eyed grandmother who wandered down from the foothills and was struck by a pickup at Tramway and Copper Avenue only to explode in a whirlwind of sand dollars and a thundering of jackrabbits dustdeviling off across the flats like sparks sprayed from an arc weld.

— Nate East

* * *

When I lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, my father would come to visit and we’d walk to WORD Bookstore on Franklin Avenue. I was flipping through The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem and saw this sentence: “I learned to think by watching my father paint.” I showed my father the book and he liked the sentence too and bought me the book.

My father is letting me be a writer. I moved back upstate with him because each time I live in Brooklyn I lose myself. My father gave me the big bedroom with the windows and brought me the printer and lets me close my door and sit on my legs with my headphones on until my legs fall asleep and I come to the kitchen to refill my mug. The other day he walked in here and looked at me with my coffee cup and computer and scattered papers and laughed and said, “Writers are the most boring people ever. You look like one of those scenes from a movie.”

My father is my roommate and in two weeks I’ll be twenty-five. I’ve never been happier. What’s your ideal living situation, I used to ask people. This is mine. We get up at eight and I make coffee in the French press and he makes raisin scones. Every morning it is snowing—the perfect writing weather. I don’t remember wearing snow boots for so many consecutive days since I was a small girl. He leaves me The Sun magazine when it comes in the mail for me on the kitchen counter.

I was in fetal position on the couch with Stephen King’s On Writing last night. I was laughing out loud. My dad’s back was to me where he was sitting at the table at his computer. He turned around and said, “I bought you a typewriter.”  He sounded proud.

Sometimes when I brush my teeth I chant: “I don’t want my dad to die” on repeat in my head, like saying it will somehow slow the natural course of life.

When my father dies I will want to call him and tell him that my father died. I will want to listen to music with him on the way to the funeral. I’ll want him to squeeze my shoulder the way he does. I’ll want him to hear all of the things he let me write about him.

— Chloe Caldwell

* * *

For Christmas my family always drew names from a hat. Whoever we got, that was the one person we gave a gift to. It made sense because most of the time we lived off welfare and my parents had seven kids to feed. As we grew up we each scattered in turn, but the tradition of drawing names lasted a few more years. My family rarely got all together but we mailed gifts.

Twelve years ago when I was in college and first dabbling in heroin, my brother invited me to spend Christmas morning at the house he shared with six bicycle couriers from the other side of the country. Travel is expensive so they organized an orphans’ Christmas. I brought over the package I received from my oldest sister. She was the one who oddly chose to keep the values instilled by my parents. She planned to have seven kids of her own. She believed Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God. She’s always been a complete mystery to me.

The orphans heaped the tree with gifts from their families. I placed mine among them. One by one everyone opened theirs. Knitted scarves, bicycle tools, gift cards. When it was my turn I opened the box from my sister. It was a plastic shoe horn and an industrial bolt the size of my thumb. I was confused. I looked up. Everybody watched me with pity that tore into my chest and infected my bloodstream. Enough moments like that and humiliation gets written in your genetic code.

I tell people I hate receiving gifts because of consumerism and strained sentiment, but the fact is, it probably has a lot to do with I never got what I wanted.

My brother’s friend Dave snuck away and came back. “I think there’s one more gift for Aaron,” he said. It was a large bottle of micro-brewed beer tied with a bow. He made as if the bottle had been under the tree the entire time. I always liked Dave.

A few years later my dad lost his mind and lived on the streets. I was wired to heroin. He and I started a new tradition: we would go see a film on Christmas Day. The year we saw Ray—and it was so long by the credits I was dope-sick—was actually a nice Christmas spent with family.

— Aaron Golbeck

* * *

Lucy went to the river one Sunday with a carload of friends. Times like these, she would start out satisfied with her decision to spend time with companions. It made her feel normal. She usually preferred to keep her weekend pursuits to herself, but “I floated leaves down the creek and buried a dead bird” or “I lay on the floor with my dog all afternoon” seemed to jar her coworkers who were trying only for small talk while grabbing a cup of coffee in the break room.

Driving along the highway, she anticipated events and conversations that would serve to complete her memory of the day. She often invented memories of events that hadn’t yet occurred. Her invented memories usually surpassed the events themselves and she would have to adjust to allow for reality. On this occasion, however, she found herself carried away in the collective banter and good humor of the group and content in the moment.

Arriving at their destination, Lucy took her time getting out of the car and removing her things from the trunk. Most of her friends already had towels spread near each other and were considering a swim when Lucy walked up with her backpack and small ice chest. It didn’t take long before everyone was in the water. Lucy stood at the water’s edge where small waves made by the breeze lapped at her shins. She looked down through the clear water to see small fish darting about, and she felt the smooth rocks below her bare feet.

She waded in the shallow water until she was stopped by the exposed roots of a large tree. The sun glinting off the metal caught her eye. Looking over, she saw a small box wedged under a root. She reached through the water and, freeing the box, held it up for a closer look. It was a tin box, about four inches square, with a floral design punched in the hinged lid. Lucy dried it off with her shirt and put it in the pocket of her shorts. She already knew its purpose for her. She would keep it empty of any tangible thing. Instead, it would hold possibility and potential. She smiled at the thought that the size of the box might indicate the size of her potential but quickly dismissed it in favor of infinity.

— Betsy Birdsall

* * *

What am I doing with this rose? Did someone think I was going to have use of this thing? I can always chuck it in the garbage and no longer be the bozo standing on the subway platform with a pathetic-looking plant. But no, I decide to hold on when I see a girl walking down the stairs. Not a girl I know, but rather a girl who I should know. A girl who characterizes all of the girls I’ve wanted to know prior to this moment. I flash her a casual half-smile, but she doesn’t notice. The C train comes roaring in with sparks flying. I sidle forward so that we board the same car.

The floor vibrates more than usual tonight. At every screeching halt, I slide against the end of the bench. As I adjust myself, I make note to see if she’s getting off. I know she’s not going far. Once you pass a certain point in Brooklyn, it becomes no-man’s land. There’s no possible way this girl is going all the way to Far Rockaway. No, I know where she’s going. She is of course going to transfer to a Court Sq.-bound G train. I’m able to steal a few glances from her, but not for more than a few seconds. As the train passes Jay St., she uncrosses her legs, bracing for departure. I still have time. As I see the dim lights of Hoyt-Schemerhorn, I make my way across the car. My entire body is shaking and maneuvering down the moving floor is proving to be quite difficult. A petal falls from my nervous hand. The train stops and I almost fall over. Without saying a word, I hand her my mangled gift. Her pupils dilate and her mouth opens slightly. “Umm . . . Happy Valentines Day?” is my poorly composed explanation. She gives me a middle-brow expression, and flatly thanks me. She walks through the closing doors, presumably making her way to a nearby trash can.

I’m browsing the “Missed Connections” section on Craigslist, as tends to happen when I drink too much. She had written an ad, thanking me. She is also confused about why I gave the flower to her. I tell her my story, hoping to elicit a response. Nothing ever comes. But every time I’m on the Canal St. platform, I’m waiting for a pair of stockings to come walking down the stairs.

— Troy Turnwald

* * *

Do you remember the way cottonwood fluff blew in our faces by the waterfall, on the longest day of summer? How with each step toward water our faces sparkled with moisture, then clogged with that sticking cotton? Do you remember, at the top of the Falls, that tree, anchored and alone on its own small island?

I love the drifting softness of floating cotton, I told you. I love the vitality of that humble sapling. Standing by river, inhaling sunshine with your shoulder to steady me, I felt your resilience, your ability to anchor even me.

The waters ran fast and dirty and thick with smoky foam that day—storms had passed in the early morning. As we moved downhill toward the river bottom, you pulled a twist of snowy fiber from my hair and flicked it away from me. You embody smooth, collected motion.

I remembered then another moment. Years ago, also in the summer. Your pale fingers were knotted in my long, black hair, eager for the comfort. I felt your own fibers twisting then, as if you were trying to work your body inside the downpour of its color. I wanted to do this for you—let you in, make you happy—because you were the solid form I desired.

I have been drifting these past four years, almost as long as you have known me. This makes me difficult, I know. But the storms have passed. You have given me solace and stable shores.

The river pooled and stilled at the end of its run; no more cliff-face tumbles and wild foam. At the red bridge, it reflected our mercurial images into the space beyond. It was if we had transcended something, opaque forms now filled with the brilliance of the sky. I wanted to be moored that night, years ago, when I looked into your hard, blue eyes. I knew, too, that you feared the turbulence of my life, the way I meander back and away from home. But here, in the popcorn warmth of a June sun, we can learn from each other:

— Marcella Prokop

* * *

An English folk tune, known as the “Riddle Song,” was carried by settlers to the American Appalachians.  I heard it first as girl. The lyric drifts back to me from memory now: “I gave my love a cherry without a stone – I gave my love a chicken without a bone – I gave my love a story that has no end – I gave my love a baby with no crying.” I knew, even then, that chickens do have bones. Now, I also know that cherries without stones are made so in factories, or on corporate farms, by underpaid labor, providing luxuries like that for the well-heeled consumer, and every blessed baby, with all its faculties intact, cries sometimes. I did. Didn’t you? So, too, every story has an ending, even the endless ones.

Still, there are exceptions to that rule. The gift of life is an exceptional exception—a story, so far, without visible end.

Our little lives, minuscule portions of that story-stream, are just more process in the history of procreative processes— as elementary as earth-air-fire-water, of which we are composed. It was my mother’s fate, my father’s seed, and a ripened impulse, older than time, that combined to give me mine. Their gift to me was simply that: my particular life.  Though every sentient thing has an agenda, life itself has no other agenda than to be living, nor any choice—no more than stars choose birth, planets elect exploding, or galaxies, spreading outward farther and farther apart in our ever-expanding universe, have any say in the matter.

Each end is a beginning, each beginning an end, and the answer to the riddle is in it’s final verse: “A cherry, when it’s blooming, it has no stone – A chicken when it’s in the shell, it has no bone – The story of I love you, it has no end – A baby when it’s sleeping, is not crying.”

Michelle Slater

* * *

I grew up at the end of a quarter-mile gravel driveway, thirty miles northwest of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the bratwurst capital of the world.  In my town, everyone was German and the phonebook only had three last names.

On Friday nights, we descended on the tavern to eat fish fry and dance the polka. My grandfather, “Squeezebox” Merlin, was featured musician every night.  He taught me accordion with fried perch between his teeth, in front of all the Bondes and Hubers and Schneiders, swinging each other in circles.

My grandfather pulled me on stage with The Barrel Rollers, The Flying Dutchmen, Dick Schleswig Orchestra, and the Polka Kings Combo. I squeezed the box with the best of them. Neon Miller Genuine Draft sign in the window.

On my thirteenth birthday, my grandfather gave me his favorite Hohner accordion. He said I was ready.

In college, I made beer money playing with polka combos on Milwaukee’s South Side. They weren’t German down there—they were Polish. So Polish, the hospitals on the South Side used to have Polish translators on staff. In Portland it’s Klingon.

For the past twenty to thirty years, swaths of the South Side went into decline. Crime rose, and though there were still good people and great bars, you had to have your head about you at night.

The show was at Jarek’s Happy Time Inn. Jarek had died a few years before, and a Mr. Nguyen bought it, but he was bananas for polka so nothing changed.

I was heading to Jarek’s for a nine o’clock gig, but was out of finger wax—it makes skin tacky so with all the sweat and suds, fingers don’t slip from the keys and buttons.

Earl’s Music Box stayed open until nine and was only five blocks from the show, so I stopped there on the way.

I ran into Earl’s at 8:35, leaving my grandfather’s Hohner in the backseat of my Chevy Lumina. It would take four or five minutes—tops—to get the finger wax, so I wasn’t that nervous about leaving it in plain sight in my car. What were the chances?

Six minutes later, I stood on the stoop, looking at my car in disbelief. One of my back windows had been smashed out.  Beads of glass twinkled in the gutter. And in the backseat of my Lumina, sure enough, there were two more accordions.

— Logan Adams

* * *

Back in the 80s I read about a survey of college graduates from Ivy League schools. The question was, “Of everything that your parents ever gave you, was there anything that you didn’t get that you really wanted?”

This response was nearly unanimous: “I wanted my father to spend more time with me.”

Time with your mother is a given. Time with your father is a gift. What is it about fathers? I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read that survey and ever since I saw one of the leaders of the Crips, or maybe it was the Bloods, interviewed in prison. When the reporter asked about the gang leader’s father, a solo bulbous tear cascaded from each eye as he related the story of his absent father. I remember watching those twin tears fall off his chin onto his shirt. I remember thinking, wow, this guy could coldly talk about his gangland glory days, but couldn’t keep his hard shell from cracking at the mere mention of his father.

Your father gives you life. Your mother presents you to the world. Both equal acts of deliberate power. Yet not one father or mother is given any preparation on how to use this power. Oh, yes, there are parenting courses out there. How to change a diaper. When to feed your baby solid food. What toys are safe to buy. But no one gets a course in how to love a child. It’s assumed that you will know, like it’s a given.

When the kids are all grown, the day will come when somebody somewhere will ask them about their childhood. They’re not going to talk about all the toys and gadgets you bought for them. They’re going to say something about “Time with my father.”

Put your Blackberry away. Turn off your cell phone. Shut down your computer. Unplug the television. It really isn’t that hard to do. You’ve got the power. Go get your kids. Bake some cookies. Build a model car. Take a walk. It’s your gift and gifts are meant to be shared.

— Kathleen Rowe Franks


Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.