With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I was riding the express elevated train south into Chicago, watching the stops fly past and staring at the route map above the doors to avoid eye contact with any other passengers. Over the rush-hour din, I heard a man across the aisle telling the conductor that he had gotten on the wrong train. He was going to Loyola, but he had accidentally gotten on this express train, which wouldn’t stop again until twenty minutes south of Loyola. He chuckled and said that in his eighty-odd years, he had never taken the wrong train.
The conductor just nodded and told him to catch the northbound A or B train at Belmont. After the conductor left, I looked over and saw that the old man was crying. He looked overwhelmed, as if he had just realized that the world was going by too fast for him.
At Belmont I watched him get off the train. He slowly climbed the steps up to the bridge spanning the tracks, crossed over, and made his way down to the northbound side. Satisfied that he was heading in the right direction, I returned to studying the map above the doors.
I noticed that the northbound Ravenswood train also stopped at Belmont. If this man got on the Ravenswood train, he would end up several miles west of his Loyola stop. As I looked up I saw the northbound Ravenswood train pull into the station. Go help him, I thought to myself. Then, No, it’s freezing and getting dark and I just want to get home. I was relieved when the doors swung shut and the train started to pull out of the station.
But suddenly it stopped and the doors opened again. Without thinking, propelled by some unknown force, I jumped off my train, ran up the steps, over the bridge, and down to the northbound platform. As the man was stepping onto the Ravenswood train, I grabbed his arm.
“You’re going to Loyola?”
“Yes,” he said, startled by my sudden appearance.
“This is the wrong train. You need to take that one instead.” I pulled him over to the other side of the northbound platform just as the A train pulled into the station.
With that I ran back to the southbound platform. My train, apparently conspiring with whatever force had sent me to the man’s rescue, was still there. I jumped on and fell into my seat just as the doors closed and the train pulled out of the station.
Round Lake Beach, Illinois
I have been saving maps for several years now. I have old, torn road maps, worn through the creases so that instead of unfolding into a single, large sheet they are like a deck of flimsy, oversized cards. Maps of Alaska, Seattle, the Metro, the New York City subway, St. Louis. Neural maps of synapses and nuclei in the brain. X-rays. (These last few are left over from my dissertation, when I tried to make the metaphysical physical by mapping the circuits of the limbic system.)
I have saved all the hand-drawn maps that people have given me: the way to Moscone Center in San Francisco; the map of UCLA that shows the way using landmarks (big scary medical building, overpriced cookie store); directions to Heather’s house with a little note at the bottom — “Not drawn to scale” — so I will know that Interstate 580 isn’t the same size as two-block Ruby Street.
I cut weather maps from the newspaper, as well as news maps of Bosnia, Haiti, Cuba, Chiapas, the map of O. J.’s ride from Lake Forest to Bel Aire. I am always collecting maps. They come to me now in the mail. I receive map catalogs, as if I’d filled out some request form, and advertisements that show how to get from the freeway to the pizza place that sent the coupons.
While canoeing down a river in northern Quebec, our group came upon a hunting camp at the end of a huge lake. The guide at the camp was an Indian — a Montagnais — who had spent his life trapping and hunting in the bush. He used techniques handed down through the generations and taught to him by his father. He spoke of the caribou and bear as if they were people, and said that loons told him things we industrialized people could no longer hear. From the natural world he gathered important information on everything from the weather to the location of the caribou.
When it came time for us to leave his camp, the guide told us what to expect downstream. As we stood on the shore by our loaded canoes, he knelt down and placed a pebble on the sand. “This island, no trees — rocks,” he said in broken English (his third language, after Montagnais and French). He placed another pebble a few inches away from the first. “This island have trees. River leave lake here, close to island with trees. Rapids with big waves. Follow river on right side.” He passed his finger over the sand with an undulating motion to indicate fast water, then stopped it suddenly and said, “River split by rock — more rapids. Dangerous. Carry canoes on left. Trail rough.” He scratched the sand to show a well-worn caribou trail that we could take around the last of the rapids.
Through the stones he placed on the sand and the motions he made with his hands, the Indian shared with us the clear picture of the land that he held in his mind — waters where he had dipped his paddle, trails where he had set his feet. The land was a part of him. With his map, he helped make it a part of us, too.
The last week, when I’d gone past my due date, was the hardest. I’d almost convinced myself that the baby would never be born, that I only thought I was pregnant. This fear planted itself in my mind despite the fact that the child was painfully heavy in my womb, pressing on my bladder so hard I had to urinate every fifteen minutes, stretching my skin so tight that it felt ready to burst.
I studied my vast stomach and thought it looked like a strange country, mapped with red and purple ink. I ran my hands over it, tracing its topography, trying to recognize familiar places, knowing that labor was in front of me like a mountain waiting to be climbed; I wanted to be on the other side.
Havre de Grace, Maryland
My wife had been hooked on crank for about three weeks by the time I figured it out. She was disappearing every couple of nights, then coming home and saying she didn’t know where she’d been. She’d gotten awfully thin, but she’d been dieting, so I didn’t catch on right away.
I tried to get her help through a clinic in town, but she wouldn’t commit herself, and when I tried to commit her, she attacked me. Of course, the counselor was all for admitting her. He said I shouldn’t take the things she did and said to me personally, because that was the crank talking, not the wife I’d known and loved for six years. She begged me with tears streaming down her face, “Don’t put me away.” When that didn’t work, she threatened to divorce me, to kill me after she got out. Still, the counselor held his ground . . . until he found out that my insurance wouldn’t cover it. Then, all of a sudden, outpatient treatment seemed sufficient.
She decided she’d “kick it” on her own. She said she was going to Florida, that she’d be OK if she stayed away from the people who supplied her with the drugs. I asked whether she needed a map.
“Oh, no, I know where I’m going,” she said flatly.
“Well, where is it?”
“I know where I’m fucking going, and I’m not telling you, and I don’t need no fucking map!”
I backed off, returned her credit card to her, and said goodbye. No embrace, no kiss, no good luck — after six years together.
Four days later, I was paged at work. It was my wife.
“Rob, please help me.” She sounded like she was talking from the ass end of a coal mine. “I’m lost. I’m at a motel along U.S. 1-A. It’s a dump. There’s junkies everywhere. I can’t stay here.”
“Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do?” I was as angry as I was scared. How could she do this to us? By then I’d decided that none of this was my fault (which was wrong), that I just didn’t care anymore, and that I needed to get a lawyer and get a divorce and get on with my life.
“Please tell me how to get to a place with a Holiday Inn or a Ramada or something like that. I can’t be around these people.”
I decided to take her at her word, not knowing (as I do now) that a junkie is nothing if not a liar. I said, “Well, can you get a map?” I didn’t know a thing about Florida, had never been there for Christ’s sake.
“Rob, I don’t know anybody here! I don’t know where anything is! How am I supposed to get a map?” She was screaming, crying, and cursing all in the same breath.
I tried to stay calm. I still loved her — now more than ever, I thought.
“Honey,” I said, “go to a convenience store, a gas station, a tourist bureau. You’re along the coast.” (I’d gotten a map by then from my shipping manager.) “If you’ll just get a map, I can get you to Jacksonville, and then I’ll call an 800 number and get you a reservation somewhere.”
“I don’t know anybody here!” she screamed again. “I don’t know where the fuck I’m going! Why don’t you keep a map in this fucking car?”
I thought of how I’d asked her about a map before she left. And I thought, Yeah, she knew where she was going. She just didn’t know how fast she was going to get there.
Then, from the other end of the line came her heavy breathing and “I have to go. They’re here.”
I loved her like I could never love anyone else.
She didn’t show up at the divorce hearing.
Here is a snapshot in my mind.
The blue butterflies surround our shoes where we have left them by the side of the creek at Rattler Ford, near the big poplars.
You have red toenails, and have stripped to your underwear.
The crisp Appalachian sky is feathered by clouds, the sun hot enough to burn our legs and shoulders.
We sit near each other on a rock about the size of our house while our boys raid the backpack and fall about like clowns in the shallow water.
Your hand traces our trail on the beautiful Forest Service map, and I think: I wish that were my chest under your intense fingers. Nothing better than to be a mystery under you, not husband but territory.
Silk Hope, North Carolina
I was supposed to pick up my husband, Peter, at the Irvine Ranch in Orange County at five o’clock sharp. I studied the map he’d used the last time he went there and set off for the ranch with plenty of time to spare.
But out in rush-hour traffic on the freeway, it became clear that there had been some changes since my map had been drawn. A complex web of highways and endless rows of tract houses had cropped up where only peaches and strawberries had grown a few years before. The road names I’d memorized had completely disappeared into the new landscape.
I took the first offramp the traffic allowed, thinking it would lead to a gas station or a shopping mall. Instead, there were miles of housing developments and no commercial buildings.
When I finally arrived, Peter was sitting on the ground beside the road in the dark, waiting, imagining the worst.
My husband, Joey, and I both studied in West Germany in the late seventies, and we decided to return there while on a three-month backpacking tour of Europe. Our non-student Interrail passes allowed us unlimited travel, but only in first class.
In Rome, we boarded a train headed for Munich and settled into an empty, plush compartment for our long journey. Shortly before departure, an elderly gentleman opened our compartment door looking for a seat, took one look at us with our camping gear, and declared (in German), “This is first class.”
Joey replied (also in German), “Yeah, that’s right. First class.”
The gentleman hesitated, then entered and took a seat with us. He was a tall, prim man, dressed in a tailored suit. As we talked, he revealed that he lived in Berlin, where he was a buyer for a distinguished interior-decorating firm that frequently sent him to Italy to make large purchases of fine fabrics.
I said to him, “Oh, Berlin is a beautiful city.”
He gave a terse, one-word response: “Was.”
But the man warmed up to us in spite of himself. When night came, he carefully unfolded a map and began to chart our course. We were in the Alps now; the train thundered through the mountain tunnels.
“How far are we from Germany?” I asked.
“Oh, we are already in Germany,” he said confidently.
Joey and I looked at each other. We had only just left Italy; how could we be in Germany already? What happened to Austria? The man, sensing our puzzlement, located our last stop on the map with his finger, and stated matter-of-factly, “Oh, yes, we are in Germany.”
“May I see your map?” Joey asked.
The man offered it to him proudly, saying, “This is a very old map.”
Joey and I studied it. It was an old map. It was a Third Reich map. There was no Austria, just one big Germany.
Lisa Howell Neal
Pittsboro, North Carolina
Dad never spoke to me in a civil tone. He yelled, or swore, or pointed at me. I suspect he treated me this way because he knew I was gay. He never said as much, but parents always know. In his eyes, I wasn’t his son. I was my mother’s child — the sissy, the boy with his hands on his hips.
When summer came and Mom packed the station wagon for a trip to the mountains or a visit to relatives, the maps would come out of the glove compartment. Dad and I would study the blue and black lines, planning our route, preparing to get on the road. Once the trip was underway, two compatible roles finally emerged for Dad and me — he drove and I gave directions.
Sometimes, late at night, when Dad was behind the wheel and I was reading the map by the glow of the dash light, he would talk to me. He would tell me about the roads his uncle had built in Montana, or about the Indians whose names mark the West. Sometimes he would talk about growing up with his dad, the two of them picking fruit in the Yakima Valley or panning for gold in Idaho. He would talk and I would listen, and there in the dark it would almost feel the way a father and son ought to feel.
Los Angeles, California
I can’t remember any particular event that made Diane and me best friends; it was more a culmination of everything we did together.
The fall of my freshman year in high school, Diane and her family moved into an old farmhouse not far from my own. I started tutoring Diane in algebra; she despised numbers. When we didn’t feel like dealing with homework, we’d ride her horses until sunset. I’d never been around horses much before that, and Diane taught me the basics. We both fell in love with the country and the cowboy persona, dreaming that someday a pair of tall, rugged cowboys would sweep us off our feet.
This summer Diane has gone to Yellowstone Park to work and see the West — and hopefully see some cowboys. She saw a few already, but they were drinking in a bar and chewing tobacco; she was disgusted. I miss her because I need someone to talk to. I sit around my house waiting for a letter or phone call. The mail is slow between Maine and Wyoming. On the phone she sounds like she’s just down the street. It’s depressing how far away she really is.
Every time we climb into my mom’s Volvo to go somewhere, I reach for the old, ripped-up road atlas. Then I turn to whoever is in the car with me and ask, “Do you want to see where Diane is?”
West Paris, Maine
After we graduated from college, my first husband and I joined the Teacher Corps, a Great Society program of the Johnson era, and were assigned to eastern Tennessee. A couple of months before we were to begin, we drove down from Massachusetts to look the place over.
On the Tennessee road map I noticed a highway that appeared to cross the Tennessee-North Carolina line at an altitude of six thousand feet. In my experience, highways had always run around mountains, not over them. I wanted to drive through at that elevation, so I suggested we take it.
It was a good paved road that followed a valley for several miles before beginning to climb. As our VW bus labored up the mountainside, we traveled backward in time from the yellow-green of early spring to leafless winter. At a roadside pull-off, my husband casually tossed pebbles over the guardrail into the treetops. The higher we climbed, the more gnarled and stunted the trees became. Finally the road crossed the state line on a high ridge between two peaks: to our right, an evergreen forest; to the left, a grass-covered summit studded with clumps of rhododendron beyond a fence of bleached logs.
It was just another mountain to my husband, but on me Roan Mountain had a peculiar effect. Its beauty struck me like a wave. I felt like one of the pebbles he had tossed: falling, flung. I was simultaneously aware of being a stranger in a strange land and feeling as though I had come home.
As it turned out, I had. When my husband left for Vermont at the end of our Teacher Corps stint, I stayed behind. Eventually I moved across the mountains to North Carolina and bought a house. I’ve lived here close to Roan Mountain nearly twenty years now. I’ve hiked all over it, in every season and all kinds of weather. I’ve watched the wind ripple its grassy flanks until I feel I am astride an enormous, galloping horse. The mountain never fails to both move and anchor me.
Perhaps because a map led me here, I’ve loved and trusted maps ever since. I have absolute faith in them and feel gratitude for the unknown hand that traced them. For me, cartographer is another name for priest.
Bakersville, North Carolina
When I was growing up in England, my father worked as a draftsman for the Essex River Authority. Part of his job was to research and update maps of all the waterways in the area and to inspect for flood damage. If an exceptionally heavy storm struck on a weekend, his boss would call and ask him to check the sea walls and river banks. Pulling the appropriate map out of his desk drawer, Dad would invite my mother and me along for the ride.
Our car was a long-nosed, black 1950 Riley with a polished-chrome radiator grill and dark red leather seats that smelled of saddle soap and squeaked when you sat on them. I would sit up front next to Dad because I always got carsick in the back. Being in the front seat made me the navigator. Dad would open the map, refold it carefully so our route was clearly visible, and hand it to me.
My father loved maps. To him they represented order and reason and the logical unfolding of time and space. To have a map and to know how to read it, my father taught me, meant you always knew where you were.
I knew Dad preferred grass-banked lanes to main roads, so I’d guide him along the map’s squiggly green lines and avoid the straight red ones. Sometimes we got to drive down the dotted lines — unpaved tracks that wound past old, gray farmhouses and alongside wheat fields. Dad would stop the car and roll the window down just to listen to the silence and smell the air.
Every so often he’d check our location with me: “We’re crossing the railway track now, Gillian. Can you see it on the map?” Or, “We crossed the bridge over the Chelmer at least a mile back. We must be close to the Little Waltham ford. Is it marked?”
Sometimes the fords would be too swollen with fresh rainfall to cross and Dad would stop the car at the edge, water lapping at the front tires. While Mother watched him take photographs and make notes, I’d take my boat out of the trunk of the car and test its seaworthiness. All my boats were the same: a square of old wood for the hull, twigs and pieces of my mother’s sewing remnants for sails. If the water wasn’t too cold, I’d take off my shoes and socks and wade in after the boat. I’d look for newts and tadpoles and listen for coots in the shadows.
His work done, Dad would be anxious to leave for the next inspection site. If the ford seemed impassable, he’d back down the lane until he found a spot wide enough to turn around. Sometimes, though, he’d take a chance and go through the ford anyway, which would always make my mother nervous. She’d lean forward on her seat, the leather squeaking against her skirt, and wrinkle her brow. “Oh, Ken,” she’d scold, “it’s much too deep. We’ll get stuck. We’re miles from anywhere.”
And when Dad eased the front tires out of the water onto the dry asphalt on the other side, he’d smile and tell her she always worried too much. “How much further to Danbury, Gillian?” he’d ask me confidently as he pumped the brakes to dry them out.
My father recently turned eighty. He’s strong and active, and still loves to garden, write indignant letters to the editor, and drive long distances to visit friends. Now Mother navigates.
When he visits me in California, he unfolds his map of Los Angeles and ponders the massive grid of city streets and freeways. He offers to navigate for me, but instead I rely on highway signs to get me to my destination. I become angry when accidents and rubberneckers slow me down. I must seem very hard to him, so rushed to get places. I never know when I’ve crossed the Los Angeles River; I’ve never bothered to find it on a map or explore its banks. It’s not even a real river, I tell my father, and it’s dangerous when it rains. But silently I wonder if there might be something to discover there — a few tough bulrushes in the spring, or an occasional coot nesting in the debris washed down from the mountains.
Los Angeles, California
Growing up, I traveled with my parents a lot because my father was an entertainer. Whenever we’d get to a new city, I’d lie on the floor of the hotel room and study the map. For some reason it was important to me to learn the names of the main streets, where the parks were, and whether there was a river in this new place. When we’d go out the next day, I’d know where places were that we hadn’t even been to yet. The map was already in my head.
I didn’t know it then, but reading a map was my way of controlling a world over which I had no control. At least when I had the map in my head, I felt I knew where I was and where we were going. To this day, I get nervous if I’m in a new place without a map.
Los Angeles, California
I was being invited to play at a little girl’s house after kindergarten: my first invitation outside of the canyon where my family lived. I viewed the invitation with doubt and suspicion, wondering why I, and not some other little girl, had been chosen.
Seeing my shyness, the girl’s mother improved her offer: We would bake little cakes. With real sugar. It would be fun!
Cakes sounded intriguing. Were children allowed to bake at her house? Now I wanted to investigate. On the designated day, I followed the girl home after school, my lunch pail clanking against my knees.
I remember little of how we spent the afternoon other than that we never baked cakes. I do remember vividly, however, the alarmed tone in the mother’s voice when she opened the drapes and looked out the picture window. It was snowing heavily; thick, silent whorls of flakes were well on the way to blanketing everything. It was time for me to go, she announced.
As she hurried me into my coat, I told her that I didn’t know my way home. But she responded, “Of course you do! Just go back to school the way you came, and then you can find your way home from there.”
I asked if her little girl could walk with me to the school, so I wouldn’t get lost, but she said no, it was getting dark, and the snow was coming down too fast. She didn’t want her little girl out in weather like that. I said, “Please.” She disappeared into another room.
She returned with a small, white piece of paper and placed it on my green wool mitten. “Here,” she said, speaking as if she were giving me a gift. “I’ve drawn you a map.” She pointed to the paper. “Now you can’t get lost.” Didn’t she know the map was useless to me? That I couldn’t read?
As she sent me out the garage door into the cold falling whiteness, I remembered to say thank you for the nice time I’d had.
I keep directions to all my friends’ houses stuffed in the glove compartment of my truck. I started doing so after I got lost eight years ago going to visit a friend in a neighboring county.
As I drove that day, I tried to recreate the phone conversation with my friend, during which I had written down directions. Where had I put them? What kind of idiot, I asked myself, would leave for his destination without taking the one thing he needed most — directions? Meanwhile, the one thing I had remembered to bring — a pot of soup — tipped over in the seat and spilled on the floor.
That was all it took for the memories to come rolling in: old, dusty, childhood memories of clumsy accidents, loud voices, threats, violent beatings. I could feel myself shutting out the highway as episodes of childhood trauma — some new, others familiar — played out within my mind.
After hours of recollection, a final memory emerged: I was four years old. My father was driving me to see a Yogi Bear movie at the drive-in. He had gotten lost and was now raving mad. He cursed “the goddamn car,” me (“you stupid shit”), God (“the son of a bitch”), and my mother (“that sorry bitch”) in no particular order. As we sat waiting for a light to change, a drunk slammed into our rear end.
Had we not been wearing seat belts, the policeman later assured my father, I would have been killed. My father held me against his leg, his large hand cradling my head, and for the first time I felt the magical comfort of reassurance, even as I burrowed into the embrace of the man who would one day take it — and my innocence — away.
At that point, I returned to the present and discovered that I was passing the Pennsylvania border — hundreds of miles from where I was supposed to have been going. I also saw a white piece of paper wedged between the passenger-side sun visor and the roof of the car. Sure enough, there were the directions to my friend’s house, with his phone number and “if lost” scrawled hurriedly at the bottom.
I stopped at a gas station, went to a nearby pay phone, called my friend, concocted a lie to explain my absence, then got some paper towels to clean up the cold soup.
As I drove back home all night and into the morning, none of the roads looked familiar, yet every element of the passing landscape seemed charged with life, as though the world — anxious, exhausted, hurting — were awakening with me.
Greensboro, North Carolina
“Aunt Reba has a leetle-bitty brain,” Mother would say, holding her thumb and forefinger nearly together.
Well, Aunt Reba wasn’t known for her intellectual pursuits. Her reputation was built on her spotless house, the thousands of potholders she crocheted, and her devotion to her grown children, Margaret, Ben, and Don.
Her house was one of my last stops on a summer-long car trip around the United States. I had started in New York City and headed west, ending up at a music festival in Santa Barbara, California. After the festival, I took the southern route back, along Interstate 10 to Houston, then down the Gulf Freeway to Aunt Reba’s.
As we sat sipping cold drinks on that lazy August afternoon and talking about my adventures, Aunt Reba’s face took on a puzzled look. “Carolyn,” she said, “how do you find your way around the country like that?”
“I use maps.” The answer seemed somehow impolite.
“Oh . . . ,” Aunt Reba mused. “Maps. . . . Margaret uses those.”
Brooklyn, New York