Street Map of the Continent
Some days his work took him into people's houses. He would enter a room, part the air, odor things differently, then come out with whatever it was. Never a word of thanks from anybody, but he would usually get asked if he needed to use the bathroom--a powder room, more often than not. He would picture the owners listening to the flushes, counting.
He lived with a woman who volunteered at the library and brought a different book home every night. She would sit with it open on her lap and work the tip of an uncrooked paper clip into the gutter where the facing pages met, prying things loose: fingernail peelings, eyebrow hairs, pickings and outbursts and face-scrapings. Anything on the plane of the page itself--the immediate heedless presence of the previous reader in the form of abundances of shed hair, perhaps, or gray powderings of scalp--she swept onto the floor. She evacuated the books, then ran the vacuum cleaner. In the morning, the book went back to the library.
The man had his own chair and watched her like a hawk. There were a few years of cordial intimacy with the woman, and then her teeth began to lose their way in her gums. They listed and slid. The sticky hair she had always combed into a canopy over her forehead started to droop, and the color went dim. Her eyes seemed to take him in less and less.
One morning she was nowhere the man could see. Most of the clothes she had liked were gone, too.
He called in sick.
He sat in his chair watching the kitchen from the hour when the table was a breakfast table to the hour when it was a supper table.
He started buying hewspapers--anything he could get his hands on, one of each. There were some papers that came out only once a week and printed the menus of the senior-citizen high-rises in town. These he tore out and taped to the refrigerator door as ideas, suggestions.
The grocery store where he bought the papers was not part of a chain. The floor dipped and sloped. The aisles started out as ample causeways, veered off, then narrowed down to practically nothing. There were vitrines back there. Display cases. Nobody seemed particular about what went into them. The man started bringing things to add.
Her shoes, with the gloating, mouthy look that shoes acquire when no longer occupied.
Her stockings, riveted and unpleasant to touch.
Sheet after sheet of her swaying penmanship.
Numbers she had piled high onto graph paper.
One night he called the home number of the man who lined up the jobs for him.
"Yes," the voice said, over TV noise.
He put the phone down. Her smoking and sewing tackle were on the telephone stand. He put them in a bag to take to the store.
The sleeplessness spread to his arms and his legs. He practiced removing her absence from one place and parking it somewhere else. There was too much furniture in the house, he decided.
The town was one whose name the citizens never had to spell out on the envelope when paying a bill or sending a card locally. Instead, they could just write "City." Then came a generation who grew up suspecting there were two different places--one a town, the other a city--with the same sets of streets and addresses. These people were less sure of where they lived and spent too much time deciding whether the shadows that fell across sidewalks and playgrounds were either too big or too little for whatever the shadows were supposed to be shadows of. These were people who dreamed of towers that would never quite stay built even in the dreams.
Depending on which sources the man read, he could be counted as part of either generation.
The only other thing ever known about him was that when it came time to take his car in for the annual inspection, he sat in a little waiting area off to the side of the garage. A mechanic came in and told him that they had gone ahead and put a sticker on the car, but there were oral disclaimers about the brakes, the tires. "I don't know what kind of driving you do," the mechanic said. "Is it mostly around here, or highway'?"
"Highway," the man said.
Weeks went by before he thought to stop.
copyright 1995 by Gary Lutz; appeared originally in The Quarterly