This is a city of many faces. It folds itself into dark corners. It stretches out its fingers of neon signs and asphalt. It unrolls itself like a magic carpet. It changes from day to day. It had a heart that beats in the center, though no one knows where the center is. This is a city of paths and destinations. A hundred thousand people make their way through the maze. Their paths meet and cross; they leave their trails of broken hearts and bread crumbs behind them. They think their ways are secret, their desires unknown. But they are like ants in an ant farm: Anyone watching from above can see exactly where they are going and where they have been.
Mr. and Mrs. Clark stand on a street corner. They are looking for the Theater District. They are visiting their daughter here in the city for the first time. They are to meet her for an evening show. She had offered to make arrangement for them, but Mr. Clark said, “What? Do you think we’re senior citizens already? We can take care of ourselves, thank you.” But now they are lost; they have wandered far from their hotel and the streets are unfamiliar. The boys playing on the sidewalk speak in foreign tongues. Some have no shirts; some have no shoes. Mr. Clark has a thick red neck. He is perspiring a bit. Mrs. Clark clutches his arm, not because she loves but because her new shoes are too tight. Now Mr. Clark looks for a cab, then tries to make sense of the street signs. Mrs. Clark tries to ask directions of the boys. They laugh and call her “fat lady” in their own language, but she understands them anyway. She turns away from them, lips trembling, and says, “We’re going to miss it, aren’t we? We’re going to miss the show.”
You’re lost. Or you’re looking for something. You’re trying to find your way. You turn a corner, then another—no, that’s not it. The streets all look the same, but they change their stripes as soon as you turn your back. You need a guide; you need a map. You walk with your collar turned up and your chin sunk in. The sun’s going down, the streets are empty, and it’s getting later and later. The something that you’re looking for is waiting for you to find it, but it won’t wait forever.
Gordon sits on the examining table in his underwear and a paper rob. His feet are very, very cold. “I’m sorry,” says the doctor. “I have some bad news.” “Yes,” says Gordon. The doctor shows him shadowy pictures of his insides. The doctor points to this dark splotch and that one, and tells him a long, dull story about the microscopic things in his blood. “I see,” says Gordon. “I’m sorry,” says the doctor. Gordan says, “How long do I have?” “According to the statistics, you have about five to ten years. But they could be wrong.” “five years. Five years,” says Gordon. “Five years or fifty thousand miles, is that it? Is that my warranty?” The doctor has no sense of humor. He is a bald man, all business. Gordon looks with envy at the doctor’s bald head. Then he puts on his clothes and leaves. Outside, the receptionist tells him that his fly is undone. She is white-haired and wrinkled. Gordon looks covetously at the wrinkles in her face, the soft folds of her, and her twisted fingers.
The city wakes and stretches itself like a cat. New neighborhoods spring up overnight like tropical jungles. Old neighborhoods die majestically, slowly sinking to their knees in the muck like dying dinosaurs. The old theaters are the last to go, the gilded palaces filled with ghosts of music. They groan and settle and ex[ire with a wheeze, and then there is only dust.
Natalie is a practical girl. Not about money or everyday things. She is practical with her heart. When she loves, she does it efficiently and well. Her heart is reliable. She has two arms and two legs and her hair is red. Just yesterday she lost something. She lost it to a man she thought she loved, and then afterward he put his hand on her thigh in a proprietary way and told her about his wife. Most girls would have slapped and cried, to have lost what she did, to a man like that. But not Natalie. She is a practical girl. She put on her shoes and she put on her coat, and she went out into the street and started walking. And she’s still walking today. She’s searching. She’s a practical girl—she lost something and now she’s going to get it back. “I’ll find it,” she says, “I’ll find what he took from me.”
You’re still looking. You’ll never find it. You know it’s here somewhere, but this city keeps teasing and changing in the corner of your eye. You’re about to give up—but then you look up from the sidewalk and there it is—the map shop, wedged in between the skyscrapers. It’s there waiting for you. Low, sagging, with a mansard roof like a hat pulled low on the brow. MAPS—GUIDEBOOKS—DIRECTIONS reads the sign. What a coincidence, you say to yourself, that it should be right there, right when I need it.
“Five years or fifty thousand miles,” says Gordon as he walks the streets with his hands in his pockets and stubble on his face. He passes the lit windows of shops: stuffed animals, grapefruits, shiny dresses on mannequins that gaze at him longingly. What should I do now, what should I do? he sings in his head. Quit my job? Spend my savings? Do I have time to love a beautiful woman, start a family, star in a movie, study Zen? Is there time to do anything before the time’s up? Maybe, he thinks, if I don’t have much of anything, it will be easier to give it all up. Maybe I should keep walking and walking, use up my miles as fast as possible, get it over with. Then I’ll never have to know what I’m missing.
You’re looking at the sign, peering in the windows. They’re coated with dust, broken, patched with cardboard. What a coincidence, you say. But’s not a coincidence at all. It’s simply practical. People who know where they are don’t need maps; those who are lost do. So naturally, the mapmaker has situated his shop in the place where people are lost, the place where demand is greatest. The mapmaker and his shop are waiting here for you. He saw you coming; he put himself in your path. The map shop is here especially for you, like the gingerbread house in the heart of the deep dark forest.
“Look—maps,” says Mr. Clark. He’s hurrying up the sidewalk, mopping his neck with a handkerchief. Mrs. Clark wobbles after. “Surely they can at least give us directions,” he says. The place looks deserted, some of the windows broken. He reaches for the doorknob. It is shaped like a fish and slithers in his hand. They push their way inside. And inside—maps. Rolls and rolls of them, on shelves, pinned to the walls, lying crumbling in corners. Blurred splotches of color. Thin tangles of line that trail into nothing. “This isn’t what we need,” Mrs. Clark clucks. “Can I help you?” says the man behind the counter. “We’re lost,” says Mr. Clark. “I see,” says the man. “Theater District,” says Mrs. Clark, and stumbles against Mr. Clark in her tight shoes. “Sorry. lost my balance,” she gasps. “One thing at a time,” says the mapmaker.
Two men, in a booth, in a bar. Slouching before two glasses of beer. Victor has black greasy hair like Elvis. Nick has Elvis’ soft, pouty mouth. “Here’s the deal. It’s simple,” says Victor. “Yeah,” says Nick. Victor says, “We got the tools; we know the codes. It’s a cinch once we get in there. We can take it all.” Nick says, “Right.” Victor: “But we’re gonna need a way in. There’s got to be a way.” Nick: “Yeah.” Victor: “Yeah, maybe through the basements? Underneath? You think?” Nick: “Yeah. Sure.” Victor: “Maybe a garbage chute? The subway carries garbage; some buildings have a tunnel going straight down there.” Nick: “Yeah.” Victor: “Can’t you say anything useful?” Nick thinks for a while and says: “Yeah.” Victor grabs him by the hair and knocks his head against the table twice, spills the beer, and laughs.
Natalie walks the streets. She looks for what she lost. She looks in grocery stores and in alleys. She looks on park benches. She wanders through hotel hallways, watching the maids airing out the rooms and killing last night’s sweaty ghosts. She watches the people leaving the movie houses with their eyes glazed and dreamy, full of distant cities and music and imagined touches. She asks prostitutes and drag queens if they have seen it—the thing she lost. “Sorry, honey,” they say, “everybody knows once your lost that, you don’t ever get it back.” She knows that in a way there are right. But in a way they are not.
You go inside the map shop. Inside it is like a church gone to seed. High ceiling, stained-glass windows, a holy hush, the pews replaced by shelves. You almost wish it was a church. You would like that sort of guidance. Here are maps. Hundreds of maps in curling piles. Fantastic faded colors. Delicate lines across the paper like a lover’s hair on the pillowcase. Street maps as intricate as the designs on a computer chip. Continents cramped into strange new shapes: a dog begging, a charm bracelet of island, a centaur, a toilet set. Maps in which sea monsters, mermaids, and watery gods are drawn where the oceans spread into the unknown. The best parts, you think, are these unknown regions.
The wife says I should take a vacation. She says to me, “You should close up shop, take some days off.” I tell her I can’t, but she doesn’t understand. “Your back,” she says, “you’re straining your eyes, and your arthritis. You’re old; you should retire.” “This is my job,” I tell her. “These people need me. What can I do?” “Let’s take a trip,” she begs. Let’s go to another city. You draw maps of a new place if you want.” I tell her a new place wouldn’t make any difference, but she doesn’t understand.
The map shop finds. Gordon. It seems to spring up out of the ground in front of him. He has been walking for days, nonstop, and he bumps his nose on the wall before he sees it. “Maps,” he says. “Hmmm.” He scratches the stubble on his face. He pushes open the door and steps inside. “Can I help you?” says the mapmaker. “Maybe,” says Gordon. “I’m looking,” he says. He looks at the mapmaker, who has wrinkles grooved deep in his face, marking his age like the rings in a tree. Gordon sighs. “I’m looking for something. A place I can go to. A destination. A reason to keep going. Do you have anything like that?”
“A simple street map,” says Mr. Clark, “of the neighborhood. A subway map even. Don’t you have anything like that?” Mrs. Clark says, “The Theater District. Everybody knows where that is!” The map-maker looks at them blankly. “I’ll do my best,” he says, and sharpens his pencil. “We’re going to be late,” mutters Mr. Clark. Mrs. Clark moans, “She’ll think we’re getting senile.”
Natalie goes to the map shop. She makes a beeline for it; she knows it is there. She’s a sensible girl. As she goes inside, the bell on the door tinkles. She goes to the counter and explains what she is looking for. “I see,” says the mapmaker. He looks at the gooseflesh on her bare legs and blisters on her heels. “I have something for you,” he says, and hands her a roll of paper. She studies it. “I don’t see anything,” she says. “You will,” he says. “Well, thank you.” She is as polite as ever, gives him everything in her pocket—a bus token and $3.45. He takes it with a gallant bow.
You ask the mapmaker if he has a map for you. He looks at your face and then takes your hands and studies the whorls and lines of your fingertips. His hair is white; his eyes are deep; his skin is dry and paper-thin. “I might have something,” he says.
“There is a map for you,” says the mapmaker, “but I don’t have it. It’s a map you have to find yourself.” “Then can you give me a map to find that map?” says Gordon. “Sorry,” says the mapmaker. “I see,” says Gordon sadly. He turns and leaves, and the bell on the door rings softly after him.
“I need a map,” says victor, who has found the map shop even though it tried to hide from him. He says, “I need a map of the underground.” “The underground?” says the mapmaker. “Yeah,” says Nick. Victor says, “You know, a map of the subways and basements and things in the city. Infrastructure. Don’t you have anything like that?” The mapmaker says, “The underground? Is that like the underworld?” Nick says, “Yeah.” Victor say, “Yeah, I guess. You got anything like that? Something for the neighborhood around the First National?” The mapmaker smiles and says, “I do.”
Natalie steps outside and studies her map. Now she sees a line on it, starting in the middle and snaking to the right. So she turns to her right and beings walking. At the corner she stops and consults the map. The line has hooked to the left and now she can see it moving, bleeding across the paper in a decisive way. She turns left and follows it.
The mapmaker knows you. Some people say he can follow you everywhere. Your shadow is like the ink spot the mapmaker traces to draw your path. Some say he has your future and fate drawn out in the lines on his map, indelible as the lines on your hand, and as he watches you walk the paths of your like, he is proud of his handiwork. You don’t know what to think, but you look into his piercing hawk eyes and feel his talon grip on your wrist, and you are suddenly not sure you want to see the map he has for you.
“The Theater District,” says Mrs. Clark, as if it will help the mapmaker understand. She leans against her husband. Mr. Clark clears his throat in annoyance. The mapmaker bends over his work.
Gordon wanders the streets, not looking for anything. He tries to remember his mother’s face, the laugh of a friend, the dog that was a childhood companion, his toy soldiers. They are all gone, all lost. The streets are cold underfoot. He will not stop walking.
Victor and Nick wear dark clothes and leather gloves. They have made arrangement. They carry their tools and heavy metal things and ski masks. They follow the map, the map that the mapmaker gave them. They follow it down the streets, down some stairs, down below the subway, through hidden passages, down and down and down. Past pipes and rats and blasts of steam, down into the underbelly of the city. “This map is incredible,” says Victor.
Natalie follows her map. She follows the line as it wanders over the page, bending, turning, twisting back on itself like a restless sleeper. She’s determined; she will reach the end. Her feet hurt terribly.
You take the map he gives you. You fold it in your hands and go out to the street. You decide you’ll look at it later. But you wonder if he has, back in his shop, a master map with every person’s life drawn out neat and indelible, all the paths that cross and join and separate, all the lives that run parallel and never meet at all. You wonder if he is laughing as he draws the thoughts you are thinking right now, to amuse himself.
Gordon stops walking. The world stops flowing past him. It holds still so he can look. He looks up at the buildings, so high that they nearly meet over his head. He looks at the neat lines and squares beneath his feet. The children playing on the corner speak another language. He is lost, and there is no map shop.
“What’s this?” says Mr. Clark as the mapmaker hands him a piece of paper. “That will take you where you want to go,” the mapmaker says. “I can’t read it,” Mr. Clark says. “Let me see,” says Mrs. Clark, and snatches it from him. The shop is dim; she takes it to the door to read it in the twilight from outside. “I can’t—” she says as the door bangs open with a gust of wind, and the paper is swept out of her hand.
Natalie is near the end; she can feel it.
Down stairs and ladders, through passages where the rats look up, surprised at being disturbed. Moisture drips down the walls. “This is terrific,” says Victor. “We should be getting there soon.” Nick says, “It’s really hot down here.”
Natalie’s map has ceased to move. She folds it and puts it in her pocket and looks up. She sees a man sitting on a stoop, watching her. “Hello, she says. He says, “Hello. I’m so tired.” He has a grizzled ace and kind eyes. She says, “I am, too.” She sits beside him. He opens his mouth and so dos he and they talk for hours, gazing at each other and at the little section of starry sky visible between the buildings.
Mr. Clark chases the bit of paper as it blows down the street. “Damn it!” he cries, and runs after it, panting. “Wait!” cries Mrs. Clark. She takes off her shoes and flies after him, her breasts bouncing, her shoes in hand. She runs like a gazelle, in leaps and bounds, chasing her husband as he chases the paper. Mrs. Clark has found her balance.
Victor and Nick reach a metal platform surrounded by a railing. They lean over and stare into a chasm. Nick wipes his forehead. “It’s so hot in here. Very, very hot,” he says. “Shut up,” says Victor. “We have to go on.” “Down there?” says Nick. Victor says, “That’s what the map says. Do you see a ladder?” And then a fiery breath heaves out of the chasm, bringing with it a hot burning smell and shrill screaming echoes. “Did you hear that?” says Nick. “It’s the subway, jerk,” says Victor. And the two of them make their way down.
Gordon stands and asks her to come home with him. She consults her maps and finds that this is the right thing to do. She knows it is, but she is a practical girl and wants to make sure. They walk to Gordon’s apartment. She takes off her coat and she takes off her shoes. And then he sees it—the curves and shapes and colors. He puts his finger on her arm, on a thin blue vein that bends and branches like a river. He explores the texture of her skin, the shape of her coastline, her temperate regions, the mountains and valleys that poets write about. She is warm and wet and dry and large and small all at once. She is a country he can live in. Here is a place he can be.
Natalie is a practical girl. She knows she has not found the thing she lost. But she has found something else, something better.
The paper blows, dancing on the wind, and Mr. Clark follows, cursing and sweating, Mrs. Clark skipping with her newfound lightness, and the paper leads them in a fluttering, flailing dance all the way to the Theater District.
You can’t resist. You look at the map he gave you. You see wondrous colors and dancing shapes; everything you want is spread out on the paper, waiting for you. It is just what you wanted. And so you go on your way, feeling secure that now everything will be all right; the mapmaker says so.
Back in his shop, the mapmaker sits over his master map, watching the paths converge. He smiles at your thoughts, and then he leans on his head on his hand. He sleeps. He sleeps, and dreams of dandelions and tiger lilies that roar in foreign lands. In his sleep he reaches out to stroke them, and he knocks over his pot of ink, and it spills all over the map, and all your lives take a glorious, disastrous, unexpected turn.
(“Directions” from Flying Leap: Stories by Judy Budnitz. Copyright © 1997 by Judy Budnitz. Reprinted by permission of Picador.
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