5.5 minute read. Inspired and adapted from Wolfe’s The Far and the Near
On the edge of New York City, somewhere in the Throggs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx, there was a decrepit house with broken shutters, peeling paint, and a sunken porch. In front of the home was a crumbling walkway. Weeds twisted through the concrete cracks. If the dwelling didn’t have a narrow, shoveled path in the winter from the sidewalk to the door, a passerby would suspect abandonment. The whole property had a stifling air of slovenliness, neglect, and waste.
Every other day, a thirty-year old man named John Kosovitch passed by this house on his way to bartend in Manhattan. For the past three years he’d been walking the same route on his way to the bus stop, and often he observed an old woman leaning against a railing on the porch, smoking a cigarette. She looked as withered as her decaying home, her dark eyes seemed to be clouded by a mysterious and crushing regret, and her wrinkled face always wore a nasty scowl. Sometimes, John would wave and yell, “Hello there neighbor!” and the old woman’s wretched mien would break into a crooked, toothless smile.
John Kosovitch was a writer. At twenty-two he moved to New York City in hopes of publishing a novel or becoming a journalist, but for years he received thousands of rejections from agents, newspapers, publishers, and magazines, so he became reconciled to obscurity and manual labor. At twenty-seven, he considered applying to journalism schools, but out of the momentum of the daily grind, the various temptations and vices, and an obsession with his own work, he let the deadlines pass…
Despite growing hardened and jaded, John held on to a glimmer of hope. He had poured thousands of beers while watching the sticky foam drip down his trembling hands, lifted thousands of chairs in the graying dawn, tied thousands of trash bags and heaved them into backyard dumpsters, shoveled vomit out of clogged sinks, scrubbed rat shit out of crevices, and shuttled back and forth until the ache in his legs radiated up to the back of his neck. But beyond the physical demands which always became endurable, then habitual, it was the grasping pettiness of humanity which filled him with an unspeakable horror. It was the thousands of empty conversations, the whining and complaining, night after night hearing the same stories, the same mind-numbing stupidity, the vapid questions, observing the conniving callousness, the mean squabbles, the bleary-eyed drunkenness, the cackles of hoarse laughter. Were these the people who he was creating art for? Is this the world that would consume and spit out the triumphant products of his sensitive soul? No. The contrast between the ambitions and dreams in his heart with the sniveling demands of the patrons and co-workers was a pulsing pain…a pain that would throb in his chest whenever he was jostled by the rhythms of his occupation in the midst of the shining vision of what his life could be. So he wouldn’t play their game. No. He wouldn’t create for them…
But no matter the sinking doubt or seething anger, he held on to the glimmer of hope that he’d escape, that he’d achieve self-sufficiency through the pen, that his words would reach and touch a like-minded soul. And somehow, for the past three years, the image of the old woman on the porch smoking a cigarette became wrapped up in this shining vision. Because as much as John looked with dissatisfaction upon his situation and occupation, he was still moving; still learning; still growing. Meanwhile, this old woman was stuck in her dilapidated home, on the edge of death, wasting away. I still have a chance, John would think, while this poor woman’s life is almost over. Anything can be achieved if you have unwavering patience and the conviction you’re moving forward…
He created a story of the old woman in his head and scribbled it in a journal. She was a painter. At the age of twenty-two, while in art school in New York City, she met a handsome man in a Lower East Side bar who was also another student at the same institution (musician). They became close friends, but soon she fell desperately in love with him. For years she burned with unrequited love. She couldn’t bring herself to confess her love, so she channeled all her anguish and passion into her work. After they graduated they began writing letters back and forth. The man married, had children, and gave up his artistic dreams. The woman continued to paint and was able to achieve enough renown to survive solely off her art. She traveled the world in order to quench her unsatisfied passion through constant upheaval and shifting locations. Yet every couple of years, she’d meet the man for dinner, and her dormant passion would flare up again. There were moments when she thought he was about to kiss her, but he never did. One day, the man’s wife died of a heart attack. The old woman planned to confess her love for the man now that the wife was gone, and traveled back to New York City for the funeral. But when she arrived she learned that the man had died in a car accident. The man’s children discovered journals in their father’s bedroom. They read them, and sent three of them to the old woman. The old woman learned that the man had felt the same passion for her throughout his life. But he believed she was too lovely, too intelligent, and too talented for a failed musician like him. The woman fell into despair. She gave up selling her paintings. She calculated how long she could survive off her savings, bought the cheapest house she could find in the Bronx, and planned to wallow the rest of her days in seclusion…
One night John Kosovitch was bartending at a place called The Gander near Union Square and there were only three, occupied customers at the bar. Whenever the restaurant was empty, John would pull out a book. At the moment he was reading The Wild Ass’s Skin. While turning a page, the book was ripped out of his hands by his boss and thrown across the room.
“What did I say about reading on the job?” she yelled. “If you don’t have anything to do, polish more glasses, you lazy shit!” John didn’t reply right away because he was committing to his memory where he was in the story so he could find his place when he picked up the book. “Did you hear me?”
“And make me a cup of coffee. You’re my coffee boy now.” John smiled.
“I’m not making you a cup of coffee.” He pulled off his shirt, which was labeled, Good Times At The Gander, and set it on the bar. “I quit. Goodbye.” John walked out.
While on the subway John calculated how long his savings would last. He felt a deep attachment to New York City, but it was time to depart. His lease was up in a week and his landlord was already introducing new tenants to his home. John planned to pack his belongings that night, and buy a bus ticket at Port Authority the next morning. To where, he didn’t know…
On the bus to Throggs Neck John thought of the old woman. He wanted to learn her real life story before he left. While walking back to his apartment he stopped in a corner deli and purchased a small bouquet of flowers. Since she was most likely still wallowing in despair, he thought she’d appreciate the gift.
When he was finished packing, John walked to the old woman’s house. The flowers were tucked inside his jacket. For a brief moment, he paused before the shattered home. His vague and hazy daydreaming fantasy was about to meet the concrete and ruthless reality…
But as he walked across the uneven path to the door, he stopped. He heard a piano playing. The classical music seemed to dance delicately in the air. Was it coming from the old woman’s home? Before he could check the source of the music he was knocking…
The music stopped. The old woman opened the door. “Why hello! My waving neighbor! What a pleasant surprise! Come in!” John stepped past the threshold and caught his breath. He had created such an elaborate story of this old woman’s squalid despair that it took him a few moments for him to comprehend his surroundings. The foyer was immaculately clean. There were landscape paintings on the walls. A winding staircase with a mahogany railing led to the second floor. Colorful pottery was arranged neatly on a table. The interior was magnificent and pristine. “And your name is?”
“Welcome John. My name’s Cara. Follow me. Let’s sit in the living room.” Her immediate warm hospitality was also unexpected. Why was she trusting him? John had prepared himself for a closed-off and bitter hostility, and had already crafted a hasty speech to explain his affronting presence. But here this woman was treating him like a long-lost friend. Why? He followed her into the living room.
The living room was even more impressive and tastefully decorated than the foyer. There was a grand piano in the corner. A sparkling chandelier hung from the ceiling. There was an oriental rug on the floor. Three, large sofas with plush, red cushions were placed against the wall.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” John said. Cara laughed.
“I know. Compared to the outside, right? Isn’t it funny?” Cara’s laughter was mellifluous and soothing. It was then that John was able to look closely at Cara and become aware of her features. His previous perception of her being ugly and riddled by regret was mistaken. Her face, with softly flushed cheeks and eyes that were somehow dark, but bright, beamed lighthearted curiosity. She must have put in dentures, because she had broad smile which revealed perfectly-straight, white teeth. She seemed completely at ease and expressed a mood of congenial friendliness. She radiated youth. “So what brings you to my humble home?”
“I…I…we waved to each other…I thought…was that you playing piano?”
“It was. I’m a classical pianist. Did you like it?”
“Would you like me to finish the song?”
“Yes.” She finished the song, and John sat there in awe. Then Cara turned on the piano bench.
“And what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“A writer! Let me show you my books!” Her enthusiasm was contagious. She led John to another room which was lined entirely with bookcases. “The library!” He ran his fingers along the bindings. He saw mostly French literature: Proust, Hugo, Camus…
“The inside of your home is so…so nice,” John stammered. “From the outside I…I wasn’t expecting-“
“I know, it’s hideous, isn’t it? But I’ve just never cared what the outside of my houses look like…and besides, you know, with crime in the neighborhood…it’s a natural deterrent.” She laughed again. They were now in the kitchen, which had granite countertops and oak cupboards. “Can I get you a cup a coffee?”
“No thanks. I…I brought you -“
“What did you say? I’m going deaf.”
“I brought you a-”
“Cara! I’m home!” A man’s voice boomed from the front door.
“Joseph, we have a guest!”
“Wonderful!” John turned and saw an old man, hunched over, walking through the foyer. “I brought you something, my lovely.” Joseph was carrying a bouquet of flowers.
“Oh, how sweet of you!” Cara said. Joseph gave her a kiss on the cheek, then turned to John.
“I’m Joseph, pleasure to meet you.”
“John.” Cara looked at Joseph with an expression of loving tenderness. He reached into a cupboard for a vase and filled it with water. Then he placed the flowers near a window.
“My husband is also an artist,” said Cara. “See all the paintings on the wall? Those are his masterpieces.”
“They look great.”
“Save the compliments,” Joseph said. Cara laughed.
“Honey, I gotta change, the studio was a mess today. Did you offer this gentleman a cup of coffee?”
“Good. I’ll be down in a minute.” He hobbled away and up the stairs. John found himself piqued by a desire to ask an inappropriate question.
“Cara, I know I’m a stranger, that you don’t know me at all, but can I ask, how did you meet your husband?” Cara squinted her eyes and looked at him curiously.
“Funny you should ask, Joseph and I were just talking about it yesterday. Come, let’s go back to the living room, while the coffee brews.” John and Cara sat down on the red sofa. “My children from my first marriage called yesterday to ask about my first husband’s will. My previous husband was an abusive scoundrel. For twenty years I put up with his abuse. Then he died, and I decided to play one last piano recital. At the recital Joseph was in the audience. He approached me after the show. He told me I was an angel. The rest is history.”
“I know I only met Joseph for thirty seconds, but he seems like a good…a great man.” Cara paused, then looked down at her lap.
“I waited for him all my life.”
For the next hour John drank coffee (they forced it on him) and talked with the couple about art, philosophy, and books. The conversation and the setting felt surreal. John hadn’t felt this happy in years. He never gave Cara the flowers. He thanked the couple for their kindness, wished them luck, and left.
John couldn’t return to his apartment. He wandered around the neighborhood and replayed the strange encounter. Soon, he found himself in Ferry Point Park. He traveled to the edge of the park and leaned against a railing. He tossed the flowers into the water.
Across the bay were the skyscrapers; the shining lights of the metropolis. For a few minutes John became lost in the view. He knew he would miss this city after he left, but he knew he would someday return. He reminded himself of the conviction he had when he first moved to the city at twenty-two: that the longer it took him to achieve the realization of his artistic visions, the higher he would rise, the better he would become. Each challenge was a guide, a building block, a step. He would not stop pushing, not stop working, not stop striving, not stop dreaming, even as he became a decrepit, old man. Whether in love or in art, the longer or more treacherous or more hazardous the path, the greater the end. He looked up at the sky, the nightly theatre of infinity and dying stars. He looked down at the shimmering water, where the flower petals were floating away into the shadows and disappearing into the depths. Then he peered across the bay one last time before turning back. The eternal lights were still shining. The glimmer of hope was still there. The city looked beautiful in the distance.
One Reply to “The Near and the Far”
One of the best short stories I’ve read in a while. And I’ve read an awful lot of them lately. This is good–and I sincerely mean it.