Readers Report Back From… Near and Far


A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Near and Far.”

Edited by Susan Clements.


You stand at the top of the hill on a retaining wall made of stone and concrete. You think that they are right. From here the landmass that crowds the horizon is a giant sleeping, his arms tucked neatly at his sides, his craggy toes reaching towards a clear, cold sky. The town you grew up in lies beneath your own cold feet and from up here you too are a giant, and the mill stacks are nothing but winding pipe cleaners with fluffy, antiseptic cotton pouring out of them. The school you went to is a neat and tidy square made up of other neat and tidy squares of brick. You look for the house you grew up in, tracing the city grid from school to house, your childhood umbilical; and you see it, tiny and flimsy like balsa wood and Popsicle sticks. It’s crushed between other flimsy houses, but from here it looks like the house you remember. If you look close enough, you can see your mother cleaning the porch windows, a tidy hedge bordering a yard the size of your giant’s thumb.

If you stepped down from that immovable stone wall, and descended the long concrete staircase to the street below, so that the giant was no longer a giant but a shapeless mass of rocks, and trees, and snow, and alive things, and dead things, you would see that the city wasn’t such a tidy grid after all. If you followed the winding streets while your feet slipped and crunched in the dirty snow to the house that used to be your house, using the solid steel mill stacks towering over the crooked houses and their noxious gas as a steady and reliable beacon, you would see that the hedge was filled with pop cans, and chip bags, and cigarette butts, and grey snow. You would see that the paint was coming off the house in patches like the fur of a dog with mange, that the lockstone driveway was rolled and lumpy like rough waters, that the dirt from the street clung to the windows along with the shit from nesting pigeons. But maybe you don’t. Maybe you are standing at the top of that hill, contemplating a giant’s toes, winding pipe cleaners, and fluffy cotton.

— Larissa Speak

Rumpus original art by Rob Kimmel.

* * *

The ambulance orderlies fussed about efficiently, the way health professionals do. I watched uselessly, the way non-professionals do.

“They’ll be spittin’ tacks and feathers, we’re that late,” one said to the other.

Neither paid any attention to me.

Papa didn’t look puzzled any more. It occurred to me that he might prefer getting away from us, being looked after in this professional way, now that doing the slightest thing for him had become so difficult, with toilet and feeding uppermost concerns.

A vicious wind blew across from the promontory on which a brand new mansion was being built, complete with pillars, a winding drive, and horse paddock. It was because of the wind that Mama had said her goodbyes indoors.

I wanted to go with Papa, tell him it was all right, say I’d look after him, stay with him and make sure he was comfortable. But I found myself unable to say any of that while ambulance orderlies rushed to a deadline and a wind straight from Siberia whipped at my indoor clothes.

Later that evening in the hospital, Papa sat on the side of his bed, looking unsettled. He looked at me urgently and said, “What way are things at home?”

While I hesitated, he added, “How is she?”

He never called Mama “She.” He normally called her either by her name or—if there was a bit of a barney going on—“Your mother.”

It dawned on me that he wasn’t quite sure of the century or the place. He might even have taken me for one of his sisters.

I recalled that as a teenager he had spent nine months in hospital with a back injury, sustained when “acting the eejit.” No doubt he had spent those months feeling guilty, wondering how indeed things were at home, who was doing his share of the work, and most of all worrying about how annoyed with him his mother was.

Mother, wife, sister, daughter, Eternal Feminine.

I insisted brightly that everything at home was fine, and prepared to leave, more worried about getting a walk around the grounds before dark, so as not to finish up crocked before my own hour came around.

He looked out the picture window. “Wrap up well,” he nodded at my things at the foot of the bed, “that’s a bitter wind.”

There were no further conversations between us, reasonable or unreasonable.

— Mary Byrne

* * *

The father didn’t approve of the flower’s English name: Hollyhock. He preferred the Latin: Alcea Rosea. It was rarely found near his home in Stockholm. It was the regional flower of Skåne in the south, where he spent summers that always had a hazy tint of blue in his thoughts.

A few years ago, he had begun collecting seeds and spreading them in his garden, hoping they would take. They couldn’t be planted, only grew if they wanted to grow. One now stood in the middle of the lawn. He mowed around it.

The year his daughters moved to New York, the father collected the seeds in a plastic baggie. He would scatter the seeds in Central Park. He knew his daughters loved the Park. The oldest lived on the Upper East Side, the youngest on the Upper West. They often met in the middle and walked around the reservoir together.

He would bring his southern roses to them and their park. He hoped they would see the flowers when they walked together and think of home. And he imagined that on his visits, he would greet the multi-colored buds as old friends and wink at them in confidence.

When the time came, the father packed the baggie with seeds in his carry-on, together with heart medicine, shoe polish, and an eye mask. When the flight attendant passed out the customs declaration form, his pen perched for a long time above the checklist of what was illegal to bring into the United States: weapons, meat, seeds.

When it was his turn with the customs official, he was waved past.

The sun slanted across the trees as he entered the park at 90th and 5th Avenue. He was looking for the perfect spot, a place where his Alcea Roseas would want to grow, a place where his girls would see them and think of home.

There, where the cherry trees grew, blooming like cotton candy in April. But every time he tried furtively to pull a handful of seeds out of his pocket, a jogger whizzed by, “On your left!” In the end, not many seeds were scattered.

Flustered, the father left the park. He dumped the last seeds into a planter on the sidewalk, among bottle caps, cigarette butts and dog shit. A little manure. But if they took, who would see them?

— Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Rumpus original art by Rob Kimmel.

* * *

She walked into love polygons. She would enter the polygon and begin to feel the walls shoot up around her, connecting one vertex to the next like steel bars assembling themselves around a mouse. She looked all around and, realizing there was only one path to follow she stepped out, one stilettoed foot at a time into the body of the polygon and she began the journey to the first vertex. From this angle she saw a body of concrete: the expanse in front of her was like a blanket of gray. Okay, a city, she thought. She could make out a distant, dancing point. And the point grew hands and a nice head of hair and once, she got up close, she could even make out the irises of the eyes. Purple. Huh, she thought. The clock above the polygonal body told her how long to stay at the initial vertex. While she was there she rode in yellow cabs and cast coins into fountains and got one piercing and two tattoos of symbols that looked rather interesting. She held hands with Point A who was good at telling her about his brush with homelessness, how he could sing every hit single and make the bed. He was good at letting her starve to death. It was the woman who sensed the new tide of weather. She realized the clock was trying to tell her it was time to go. Point A told her it was a power outage (no big deal), but the woman knew differently. She slipped her feet in sandals (the stilettos had been destroyed ages ago) and proceeded to Point B. This time the polygonal body looked like a shoreline. A familiar shoreline that made no sense to her since she had never seen a shore. But white birds appeared, introducing themselves as seagulls. Seagulls, I’ll learn all your names soon enough, she said. Happy with this, they flanked her, ushering her to a little house that sat in a collapsed sort of way on the beach. The sky had a gray cast to it and the winds kicked up her white linen skirt.

At first she thought the clock or fate or god or something was telling her the lighthouse was Point B, so she headed there, only to be stopped by the real Point B who was trying to nurse a sting on his shoulder, while trying not to drop a metal detector on the sand. Can you help me with this thing? He shouted. Yeah, I think I can help, she called.

Rumpus original art by Rob Kimmel.

She was mostly a nurse to Point B and didn’t mind it much. She was a great healer. But life there had a milky, blown-away feeling to it that dulled her. It was like they lived on the white, dusty face of the moon. Life was as pale and as whispery as her skirt. She began to dream of the last vertex, Point C. What would the body look like? She wondered. She was sitting on Point B’s porch swing, watching his skin grow ashen when a tropical storm kicked up, removing her shoes and tying her hair into a long tight braid. She looked at Point B and was horrified to see him kissing the air where she had been. This time she was scared of the polygonal body. It was a dense fog, little moisture packets clinging to her skin until, fully enveloped, she felt like flesh packaged in tears, suspended in the body. She moved with the storm in the air and could sometimes glimpse the body she was moving over: cornfields, a lake, elaborately ordered fields of clover. It was a very different, very lush body. Then the cloud lowered and delivered her. She awoke on a narrow path that led to a cottage with a red door. The woman had lost everything by this point: clothes, dresses, even her hair band. She looked utterly helpless and foreign. She saw the doorbell and went to push it. She imagined Point C opening the door. Would it be her last? She hoped so. She awkwardly tried to cover herself. She pressed her ear to the wooden door and could hear the last vertex moving toward her. Just please forgive me, she thought.

— Tasha Cotter

* * *

Chito, my 21-year-old cousin, died in a car accident two days before his daughter was born.

A year later, on a Wednesday, my brother calls me. “What’re you doing Saturday?”

“I work.”

“They’re having a wrestling tournament in Chito’s honor,” he says. “It ends at 7.”

I live three hours away, and it’s too late to ask for the day off without catching hell from my boss. More disconcerting, I’ll be making forty-four bucks that Saturday, and I’m counting on them for the rent.

“It’ll be an hour from ending when I get there,” I say.

“You’ve driven over for less,” he says.

What he’s really saying, though, is that our mourning for my cousin should be the same—that I should drop everything, in spite of the short notice and my really needing those forty-four bucks, lest I become a failure to my cousin’s memory. And I would react the same way: What the fuck you mean you can’t make it?

I would be as wrong as he, but who cares about right or wrong when your biggest sorrow is made to shine, calling you out, You showing up or not?

The money (a pathetically low amount of it) is too much of a necessity. So I don’t go.

At work, I check Facebook during my ten-minute break and see that my brother posted pictures of the tournament: shots from the bleachers of wrestlers stretching and sparring on mats, large trophies of an eagle in flight, smaller trophies of a soldier taking a knee, the butt of an M-16 pressed to his shoulder, the muzzle aimed forward . . . That Chito was a reservist in the Marines is just a blip in his bio to me, but I know enough to put myself aside and don’t (and won’t) indulge in idealistic bullshit about military jingoism. Not about his tournament, at least.

In spite of the flags and the guns and the uniforms, I wish I could be there to force levity and ignore the certitude that we would trade the pomp of competition—the winners, the losers, the medals and the trophies—for the decades my cousin should have lived even if they culminated in an empty wake.

Instead, I’m sitting in the instructors’ lounge of the tutoring center where I work, making eleven bucks an hour, wishing Chito was still alive.

— Chema Guijarro

* * *

Every vibration vibrates every thing, everywhere. That premise had proven true over and again for her. In May of 1953, she woke from a nightmare about death in her pink bedroom upstairs, while her father gasped his last in the bedroom below, and didn’t remember it, till decades later—in a therapy session, when she recounted the details of a recurring dream that had haunted her for years. On September 11, 2001, she woke, startled, with an unsettled, empty feeling in her gut, minutes before the towers fell far downtown, and west of where she slept. On  Friday, March 11, 2011, a bit past midnight, though exhausted, she couldn’t sleep, and yesterday, when the second quake hit the same coast of Japan, she had a flurry of mental activity, wrote for several hours, and posted “REMEMBER JAPAN—TODAY IS BUDDHA’S BIRTHDAY” on her blog, before finally going to bed near dawn. Later that day, she learned of the disaster.

I am not suggesting she’s psychic, or any other sort of special “sensitive.” I am a realist in most matters, and have other friends who dispute that “vibrations vibrate every thing” with passionate scorn. Still, her experiences move me. I’ve had similar ones, myself.

We humans are, as every other material thing is, composed of forms of energy, feeding on energy that surrounds us, receiving and transmitting constantly. We just don’t know all the feeds we are responding to, until we are made aware of them. Who hasn’t experienced thinking or talking about a friend just before they call? Of course, coincidence is probable, and sensible to conclude. I’m just saying—be aware, and think before you speak. You never know where the vibrational wave of your intention is landing, or who’s listening.

— Michelle Slater