Main Street Cartographic by Josh Cook

I’m a cartographer. I make maps. There was a time when making maps meant making the world, when if it wasn’t drawn on a map it didn’t exist, when the lines on maps told us where frontiers began. Without maps, there was no adventure. Now maps are about themes. Where are these kinds of businesses? Where did these events happen? Where are these utilities? Only names change in maps.

I didn’t set out to be a cartographer. I didn’t spend time as a young child drawing maps of the neighborhood. I took drafting in middle school, but that was because I have an irrational fear of power tools. I went to college. I majored in stuff, and I graduated. Not one thing in the world I could call a dream. One night, still in my childhood bed, I wondered how people ended up on disability, and if I could get into that racket. I guess that was rock bottom, wrapped in a comforter and breakfast made for me in the morning.

Since I was sixteen, I did my summer-job thing at a cartographer’s in my hometown. Sometime, somewhere, the cartographer—Steve—and my father—Peter—shared beers and life stories, and at sixteen, I needed some responsibility. So I got it at Main Street Cartographic with Steve. The arrangement was obvious enough. I learn some job skills, make a little money, go off to college, make a lot more money, and forget about my roots. But college came and went, and all I had were roots. No plans, no goals, no job: just roots. I’d stuck with Steve, part-time, every summer before that and summer was upon me again. I had nothing better to do.

Going back to Main Street Cartographic was a delaying tactic. It was a chance to figure out what I really wanted to do. I was supposed to build up money and decisions and a few more job skills, and then off I would go again, like I did in college, straight into my future. I got an apartment with a friend; I could afford beer and weed. My roommate worked at Best Buy so we got a Playstation cheap. It was like a domino effect, without any movement.

Time passed, so did Steve, and I realized that being a cartographer was as appealing as being just about anything else. I gave my parents a pasture’s worth of bullshit about “resisting my interests” for so long and “finally finding myself.” I doubt they bought it but…

I practice brooding. Otherwise, no one will take me seriously, and really, that is my great ambition: to be taken seriously. I brood over my maps. I brood over my order forms. I brood over the cash register. I brood over random encounters with pretty girls. As I’ve said. “I make maps” just doesn’t work like it used to. I once met this girl, a passing thing. Pretty but reasonable. Believable. It was a five, maybe six-minute conversation with a believable, reasonably pretty girl. I could brood. Her name was Sally, a name that doesn’t really seem to belong to anybody that owns it. It just seemed to hang on her like a shawl, a shawl long after anyone ever wore shawls.

And the brooding was subpar. Hardly a night without sleep. Hardly a few minutes clutching a cigarette and staring intently at the tablecloth. It was gone before dinner: gone after a few minutes of staring the ceiling or the digital clock or something. Her father worked for a cartographer for a while, a six or seven-month period when he was in college. I had on a T-shirt Steve had made years ago. We bumped into each other in the supermarket. If my life were a sitcom or a romantic comedy, it would have been the beginning. My life is neither, but what could I do, it was a beginning.

Ambition was never my strong point. But what could I do, Sally, shawl and all, fell in my lap.

I had a couple of choices. She didn’t give me her number. She told me no more than that her father was a cartographer. I could forget it all. Like I had so many times. Or maybe it was the little extra angle in the curl of her ponytail. Maybe it was the fade in her highlights. Maybe it was the little space left over between her two front teeth from her inadequate orthodontics. Maybe, just maybe, it was the way she said “Sally” like she took a little warmth from the shawl, but also a little embarrassment. Regardless, something fit. Something stuck and a one time, half-assed attempt at brooding wasn’t gonna make it go away.

For better or for worse, till death do us part, maps were a part of my life. If I’d had the guts or the imagination, I could have divorced the maps. But I just didn’t have it. Habit was what I had. And maps were my habit.

Sally—shawl and all—was dropped in a drawer. It was typical. absolutely. And I was still looking for a wife, like so many of us do. And I said things to get women to like me so that even if they eventually decided not to marry me, I could at least get some companionship and sex along the way. I said some of those things to Darla. Darla didn’t marry me either.

It was one of those question and answer sessions after the small talk has run out and nothing obvious has sprung up. We’d gone through family, career, education, and religion, and still there was nothing. But we were both desperate. Maybe she’d had a recent break-up. Maybe she hadn’t had a recent anything. But she tried another tactic.

“Have you ever come up with anything original?”

“What do you mean by original?”

“I don’t know…innovative.”

“Is there innovation nowadays?”

“Maybe, you come up with anything?”

“Well, I once thought about mapping an interaction.”

“Mapping an interaction?”

“Yeah, like take a simple interaction and represent it visually on a map.”

“How would you do that?”

“I don’t know, with like streets and landmarks, like you represent everything else on a map.”

“Have you ever actually tried to map an interaction?”

“Well, no, it’s just kind of an idea. You know, the kind of idea that gets washed away in work and stuff.”

“Yeah. I know the kind of idea. They’re heartbreaking.”

It didn’t break my heart, but I said, “They can be.”

“Do you think you’ll try it?”

“Mapping an interaction?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“You should.”

I didn’t start this because Darla suggested. Nor did I start this because it got Darla in the sack that night. Nor did I start this because Darla awakened in me some kind of long buried artistic drive. Nor did I start this because I looked back on my life and saw some kind of void of meaning. Nor did I start this because I woke up one morning wanting to be the best damn cartographer in the whole wide world. Something else happened.

I was tired one Saturday morning. I went out Friday night, for a long time. It wasn’t supposed to be a long, long night, but events just piled on, and suddenly it was four in morning. My wallet was empty: my shirt was sweaty and my roommate Dave had gone home with someone who might have been seventeen or eighteen named Jane. Dave was never one for judgment after 2am. So I was alone eating scrambled eggs at my kitchen table at four in the morning.

My mind was nowhere. Even the radio was scratchy AM tired classical music with a tired DJ. None of it stuck. When I finished my eggs, I put my plate in the sink and sat down at the table again. That’s what didn’t make sense. The clinking of the plate into the sink rang like the final buzzer in a basketball game. It was closure in noise. The next step should have been toward my bedroom, the night officially closed. But my bed was repellent. Something sat me back down at the table.

A notebook happened in the space vacated by my plate of eggs. Somehow, I’d missed it when I sat down the first time. It was open to a blank page and there was a pencil next to it. It was there like it couldn’t think of anywhere else to be.

So I drew, with the circumstantial pencil on the circumstantial notebook, one line across the page and one line crossing it in the middle from top to bottom. On the left hand side of the horizontal line, I wrote “Me.” On the right hand side. I wrote “Sally.” On the vertical line. I wrote “Her father, the cartographer.” My vision deblurred.

I thought, “That’s not so right.”

I put “Her father, the cartographer” in parentheses and wrote next to it “Collision of shopping carts.” I shook my head, suffixed a dash to it and wrote “My Main Street Carto T-shirt.” But the parentheses felt oppressive. They dissolve importance. Her father, as a cartographer, was the conversation. And my T-shirt had nothing to do with the collision. It was a collateral observation. There wasn’t enough space in the two intersecting lines to hold everything. I put the pencil down, said, “Fuck it,” and went to bed.

When I woke up the next day, around 3pm, Dave was back, watching TV on the couch and the notebook was on my nightstand. Dave was watching CNN. That meant he was depressed. I threw my jeans back on, grabbed a cup of orange juice and sat down next to him.

“What’s up, Dave?”

“Sixteen.”

“Excuse me?”

“Jane was sixteen.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m not.”

“But how—”

“She had a fake ID.”

“That fooled Jake?”

“You saw her.”

“Yeah.”

“Shit, man.”

“How’d you find out?”

“I saw her real driver’s license.”

“How’d you do that?”

“I went through her wallet when she was in the bathroom. I had to, man. I got to her room and I got scared. I mean I was too drunk to stop, but not too drunk to notice. Like, the make-up of the room, it was totally high school.”

“Oh no.”

“So I just had to check, you know. I just had to.”

“And she was sixteen.”

“And she was sixteen.”

“And the damage was done?”

“The damage was done…and…”

“And?”

“I gave her my number.”

I shook my head.

“Do you think she’s going to call?”

“Yeah.”

“How come?”

“I was her first.”

I exhaled through slightly pursed lips.

“When did she tell you that?”

“After.”

“After?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, man.”

“She thinks I’m twenty-two.”

“What?”

“She thinks I’m twenty-two.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what I told her, because, I don’t know, she’s a nice girl, and you know what people think of sixteen-year-olds who sleep with thirty-year-olds.”

“Yeah, but—”

“But what?”

“What are you going to do when she goes through your wallet?”

Dave leaned forward and dropped his head in his hands. “I don’t know, man. I don’t know.”

I was still leaning back on the couch as CNN swirled the world gone wrong. I didn’t know what to say to Dave.

“I don’t know what to tell you, man.”

“I should probably just let it go.”

“Not answer the phone?”

“Yeah, or something.”

“What if you see her again?”

“I don’t know. I’ll explain myself, I guess.”

“Noble.”

“What?”

“Noble. I think it’s noble that you’d explain yourself.”

“Oh yeah, thanks.”

Dave’s head was inclined to cast shadows over his eyes. It gave them a hollowness I hated to see, that only shadowed when Dave was upset. He rubbed his face with his hands and leaned back to focus on CNN. He inverted and dissipated in the background noise of Arie Fleischer’s robotic public relations. He didn’t talk the rest of the day.

Dave needed space and so did I. The intensity was too much. I stifled it. I went back to my room and fumbled around the floor for the comic book I tossed there early in the week. I fumbled into the notebook with the sketch. “It’d be town center style.” Once, all roads led to the center of town. Those centers were pulled apart by sprawl, leaving those cities without urban engineers a tangle of major and minor roads. Boston.

I drew a circle in the middle of the page and wrote “Conversation.” in the middle. I spider-legged lines out from it and wrote “Carto T-shirt.” “Collision.” and “Father as cartographer.” Next to “Carto T-shirt.” I wrote “Me.” Next to “Father as cartographer.” I wrote “Sally”. Next to “Collision.” I wrote “Circumstance.” I looked at the map for a second and tossed it back on the floor. I pulled on my shoes and grabbed my wallet. Dave was still on the couch when I left to get a newspaper.

The process compiled. Half-assed moments of boredom. Time killers. It was a series of surprise encounters with the circumstantial notebook and the circumstantial pencil. Drunk waiting for the eggs to fry. The notebook filled, but still, it didn’t feel like a goal.

Columbus Day. Dave and I both had it off so we went out the night before. For some reason, some reason I know of but not about, Dave was looking for an escape. I didn’t know that when we left, or when I took the first few tequila shots with him, but as the night wore on and Dave refused to wear down, I knew it. Something was unresolved. Eventually, let’s say 1am or so, I sat him down in a booth with a pint and waited.

“Pregnant.”

“What?”

“Jane is pregnant.”

“But I thought—”

“Not by me.”

“Oh, well, then—”

“Because of me.”

“Dave, don’t take this so personally—”

“When I didn’t call her back, she wanted to erase me as her first, you know. She wanted to find somebody else, or some other moment or memory or something to be her first.”

“Dave, you can’t blame—”

“Of course, she did it still angry with me, like she wanted to get revenge or something.”

“Dave—”

“And of course there was some fucking asshole just waiting for someone vulnerable like her to come along.”

“How do you know all this?”

Dave took a long chug of his beer. He set it down and the drunkenness controlled the motion of his head for a minute. “Her father came into Best Buy. I guess he’s friends with Tom, cause they were talking. I was doing some inventory, in the same aisle. I guess I’m trustworthy, cause they didn’t stop when I got there. Her father said it all, about how he wanted to wring the fucker’s neck who hurt Jane in the first place. Still thinks it’s some twenty-two-year-old college boy named Dave. Shit, if he knew it was me. Fuck, man.”

“Dave, man, all this is out of your hands. Yeah, you made a mistake when you slept with her, but—”

“Just let me sit here and drink this beer for awhile man. Just let me sit here.”

I let him sit there. I sat there with him and drank beers half as fast as he did. He had nothing more to say, and I watched him, preparing myself to carry him home. Some other friends barged in on his depression and he perked up with them. They didn’t know about Jane. Around 4am, I carried him home.

I dropped him in his bed, opened the bathroom door and left the light on. I went to the kitchen, made and ate scrambled eggs. There happened to be a sheet of posterboard and a pencil on the kitchen table. Dave had blacked out about Dave’s problems, but I couldn’t. In my idle hands, the pencil and posterboard became another map.

This map was of a system of canals, organized into boroughs that all flowed towards a central fountain. The boroughs were labeled. “Me and my shirt,” “Sally and her father,” and “Collision.” In the individual canals, all flowing towards the central fountain, I wrote lines and phrases from the conversation, all of which joined and exploded in the central fountain. “I’m so sorry” and “Excuse me” were the principle canals of “Collision.” “I work there” and “Since I was sixteen, actually” flowed from “Me and my shirt.” Lastly, “My father was a cartographer” and “Well, only for about six months” originated in “Sally and her father.” And then, of course, the fountain was a jumble of letters and words. Drunk, fuzzy, exhausted, I dropped the map on the floor while I flowed from “Kitchen” to “Unconscious.”

Dave took a two-week vacation. He went to visit a friend in Oklahoma, someone he’d shared some late nights over whiskey with in college. He needed it. It was the indirectness of the whole situation that was killing him. His part of the mess was small enough to make staying out of it now better, but still, without his part, the mess never would have happened. That’s tough on a guy like Dave. He wants to fix it or forget it.

The map got covered in dirty clothes. I got lonely. Sitting on the couch, watching TV, I realized Dave was the only person I ever really saw. I only had one employee and she was seventeen, working like I did, when cartography first came into my life. Her name was Dixie, and in her eyes, I was the uncoolest thing since the argyle socks in her father’s wardrobe, even though I let her play whatever music she wanted and wear whatever piercing she wanted. Dixie and I got along well enough, she just would’ve called the police if I asked her for coffee. There were no people in my life. That’s when I realized there were no people in my map.

“Me” and “Sally” were just words, labels, linear, one-dimensional. I could have replaced them with any set of one pronoun and one name without any effect on the meaning of the map. You replace the word “England” with the word “Eustice” and you’ve changed the meaning of a map of Europe. You replace the word “Mississippi” with the word “rowboat” and you change the meaning of a map of the United States. “England” and “Mississippi” have history. So do “Me” and “Sally.” But “Me” and “Sally” have more than just history. We have potential. And imagination. We have a chance. A chance that won’t let go of us until life does.

Then it became a goal. Then it became a challenge that, for some reason, I wanted to accomplish. Then it became an ambition. I wanted to map Sally, and I wanted to do it while conscious, not as an effect of spare moments after finishing hangover-prevention eggs. I wanted to map Sally so that I could map Jane, and then Dave, and lay my maps out in front of Dave so he can follow the lines with his fingers and find a way out of the fucking mess he’d gotten himself into. So he can have a compass, landmarks, and reference points for his disaster. I could take it to the shop and theme it however the fuck Dave wants it. I wanted to go out and buy a mountain of posterboard and thousands of number two pencils. I wanted to order extra drafting supplies for the store so I could steal them from myself in the name of my higher map. I wanted to buy crayons for color and mascara for borders. I wanted to make a copy to hang in the Met as some misunderstood modern art piece. I wanted my techniques to be stolen and adapted by everyone from psychologists to character actors in sitcoms. I wanted references to my maps to slowly invade daytime talk shows. I wanted debates about validity to swirl around my maps. I wanted my maps to remark the boundaries of adventure. I wanted my maps to make me finally feel worth the space I’d taken up with my life.

I wanted to open up a new frontier and new region that did not exist until I drew it on a map. I wanted to return cartography to an exploratory science, not a statistical one. I wanted to use my spare time at the store refining techniques and brooding over the appropriate supplies. I wanted Dave to be interested in my project. I wanted to go back and find Darla, tell her I’ve started my one original idea, and see if it gets her home with me again.

I couldn’t remember where I put my notebook. As I tossed clothes across my floor, I sketched out the dimensions of Sally’s shawl in my head. I added color tones and a frayed edge to show age. I added the wrapping paper from when it was a gift from her grandmother. As I pulled open every drawer in my room, I thought about the streets and alleys that would collectively pattern my history. I saw avenues of parents and friends and fears and failures. I went to the kitchen. I went to the bathroom. I went to the garage. I dug through the trash on my car’s floor. As I came back into the house. as desperate as I’d ever been, things started to fade. I found the notebook in the couch cushions with barely outlines left in my mind.

I cleared off a spot on the kitchen table, grabbed a pen and flipped my most recent map over to start on my new ambition. I couldn’t remember what color Sally’s hair was. I felt strangely relieved.

 

 

 

 

Josh Cook‘s fiction has previously appeared in The Owen Wister Review, The Onion River Review, and Farmhouse Magazine. His other work has appeared in 90ways.com, Wicked Hawt Magazine, The Old Revolution, Epicenter Magazine, Stationaery, and Lyrical Somerville. He is a bookseller and webmaster at Porter Square Books and a reviewer for Bookslut.com.



Leave a Reply