Columbus

Best of the Boards
Joseph Noonan


“Hey, hey, hey, buddy, what do you think you’re doing? You gotta pay for that.”

I hated that phrase. “You gotta pay for that.” It almost got me killed once.

The man behind the counter seemed unhappy about something. Agitated.

“What, this?” I held up the map. Just a standard, folded-up road map. I’d grabbed it from the rack on my way towards the door. Only half of my mind was on the counter man and his objections. The other half was buzzing with the effect that the map had just had on me. I’d reached out to pick it up, seeing that it swam in and out of focus, making me a little lightheaded.

I don’t know why, but all my life maps have seemed kind of spooky to me. I know, I know. It sounds weird to me too, when I say it, but it’s the truth. They fascinate me. How can a piece of paper with some squiggly colored lines on it give you the knowledge to get to someplace you’ve never been before?

“Yeah, that. You gotta pay.”

“I thought they were, you know, free. I just gave you over forty bucks for gas and food.” If you could call what I’d scooped out of the rotating warmer tray “food.”

He waved in reverse, beckoning me back. “Come here. Let me see that thing.”

I walked back, went to hand the map over to him. He snatched it out of my fingers before I could let go.

And if you’ve never been there before, how do you know where you really are when you arrive? You trust the map. You believe it, and you believe in it. It’s almost like the map created the destination for you.

He rolled a sodden unlit cigar into the corner of his mouth. “Let’s just see here, now… what’s this say on the front?”

“Where?”

He made a big show of peering myopically at the folded packet. He apparently didn’t see anything truly out of the ordinary about it. I watched as it glimmered in his hand. My head was still reeling.

Oh sure, I know what you’re thinking. The destination was always there, not dependent upon your arrival to make it exist.

“Right up here in the corner… two… a period… nine… five. And this funny thing in front of the two looks like, what… a dollar sign? Dollar sign means money. Two-ninety-five. Two dollars ninety-five. Does that sound like free to you? Doesn’t sound like free to me. So, are you gonna buy it or what?”

Apparently free road maps had gone the way of the dinosaur whose remains I’d just pumped into my tank, and the greasy jerkoff behind the counter wanted to make a point of it. If he’d only known what the map could really be worth to me, he might not have settled for as little as $2.95.

But for YOU, personally, that location didn’t really exist until you got there… it was just an idea, maybe someplace someone described to you, or someplace like New York or Vegas. Places that you’ve seen on TV and in movies and magazines so many times that you’re convinced you would recognize them instantly.

“I said, are you gonna buy it or not?”

“I’m not sure, now. You’ve got it all stained with tobacco juice.”

Slow burn.

Whoever owned the shirt the guy was wearing was named Stan, according to the embroidered tag over the pocket. Judging by the tension on the buttons, I wasn’t convinced this was Stan. The shirt was about three sizes too small for him. Maybe Stan was tied up somewhere out in back and this guy had been robbing the place when I pulled in.

“Stan” glared at me for a few more moments. I stood there and let him.

“Look, do you want it or not? It’s two ninety-five.” The cigar rolled back to the other side of his mouth. Stan was letting me off the hook. Maybe he needed to get back to rifling the register.

I laid three bills out on the counter and took the map back from him. I headed to the door and made my own slow show of replacing the original in the stand and taking a fresh one. The new one was shimmering so much it looked like it was about to explode out of the rack when I reached for it. I didn’t look back before walking out to the Blazer.

And since all the biggest buildings and landmarks match the pictures you have in your head when you arrive, you have no trouble accepting that you’re there. New York. Or Vegas. Or a thousand other places no one cares as much about.

I looked in all four cardinal directions before climbing in, just stood for a minute and let the sun blast down on me. I warmed myself like a lizard on a rock. I’d once been cold for a long time. The heat felt good. It was only a little after nine in the morning, and already the blacktop was soft enough that you could push a stick down into it. Not much to see anywhere around.

The dry wind kicked a paper wrapper across the lot and thrummed through the power lines. This was just one of those thousand places no one really cared as much about as New York or Vegas, not worth even a small dot on the map in my hand. Just red scorched hills all around, two ribbons of cracked asphalt crossing in the desert, and therefore enough justification for someone to build Stan’s mini-mart and put in some gas pumps.

I climbed in so the wind wouldn’t make managing the map difficult and unfolded it across the steering wheel. I looked long and hard at the area directly north of where my car sat now, searching for anything that didn’t jive with my memory. I’d spent a lot of time learning the smallest details of the area from seven other maps, all from different publishers, all stashed now in a box on the back seat. After poring over every road, turnoff, land feature and junction within fifty miles, all familiar, I switched to examining the area to the west. All very methodical. Also all very familiar. All very fruitless. I clicked over to the wedge within fifty miles south.

Bingo.

I saw it within a moment of starting over the southern quadrant. I tried not to let excitement get the better of me. But I was sure. As often as it happens, the feeling is always the same. And I always have to slow myself down, double-check against the other maps to make sure my new find is real. I knew I’d pull the others out of the box in a minute, spread them each out, and compare them to this new one. But I also knew I wasn’t wrong. The feeling is always solid and certain. I just wanted to sit and let it breath like a wine.

But I’m still not convinced that maps don’t create the places we go when we use them…

This map had something new on it.

I sat in the warmth of the car for a while, just letting the heat seep into me, watching the hills shimmering out in front. I was enjoying the moment. Then I reached into the box on the back seat and pulled out the other maps of the area. I unfolded each out over the others and paged through them in turn. I compared each map’s representation of the southern section and confirmed my find—there was no record on any of the others of the stretch of railroad track that Stan’s new map showed. It was about twenty miles south of the intersection where I was sitting. The spur section appeared to start up from nothing, about ten miles to the west. There was a small square symbol at that end, maybe a depot or something. The tracks ran for about thirty miles straight into a low set of hills to the east and vanished.

I sat a little longer and thought about this. No one built new railroads any more. There were plenty of new highways and roadwork. The desert was getting gobbled up continually by new housing. Suburbs spread wider and wider circles around large urban areas. Irrigation systems and dams were being added everywhere. Changes on the map to show all of these were to be expected. But nobody was building railroads any more. All the main routes had been laid down over a century ago, and a lot of them were abandoned now. The robber barons were long gone.

I figured this was worth a twenty-mile drive. I folded the maps back up and returned them to the box, weighted down with a brick. I tend to drive fast, with the windows rolled down. I cranked over the engine and turned left out of Stan’s lot, headed south. If Stan really was tied up out in back, he’d have to wait for someone else to rescue him. I tossed the crappy food out onto the roadway as I drove. I suddenly wasn’t very hungry.

pencil

“Middle-aged, married (Hi, Linda!), father of two. No fine arts education—all secondary and later college has been technical. Entire adult career spent in technical work—electronics, computers, network administration, service supervision. Avid reader, decided it’s time to produce rather than just consume. Favorite authors: the list could be a long one, but needs to include John Steinbeck, Robert Pirsig, Lee Child, Stephen King.” E-mail: j.e.noonan[at]verizon.net.

The story “Columbus” is a work in progress, hopefully part of a larger body of work to come.

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