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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2007/07/24
by Jesse Jarnow

Happenstance Overthrown

BRAIN TUBA: Happenstance Overthrown
He met her at a bus stop on the west side, near the train station. She found it with no problem. As soon as they started walking, he saw her glance around. It was her first month in the city. She’d just started a librarian. From the way Elsa described her — a hard, constant worker — he got the impression that it was her first time on the west side. Still, he could see right away that she looked at her surroundings differently. She seemed more intent on studying the sidewalk, not in a bashful way, but as if she were tracking a current in a river.
"How do you know Elsa?" she said, without really looking up.
"Neighborhood bar," he told her. "We both lived around the corner this one winter, a few years ago."
Elsa had said she was cute, and she was right. The girl was shorter than him, slim with lightly wavy hair, and a strident gait he found instantly attractive. To his surprise, they slipped into an easy rapport. At the end of the night, she lifted her head, and they kissed briefly, her lips lingering briefly between his.
"You know how to get home?" he asked, as he walked to her to the bus.
"Yes," she said, nodding. "It’s the third stop, or the fourth. By the pharmacy. And the camera shop. Maybe the fifth stop."
He pointed at the simplified city map on the wall of the passenger shelter. "You’ll be going that way, through Grayville," he said. "That’s where the big hospital used to—"
She laughed as the bus arrived. "No, I’ve got it," she said, kissed him again, and disappeared into the waiting doors. Not so bad for a blind date, he thought.
Riding his own route home, the bus passed over the grid, over multiple grids: trains, canals, directions of traffic, underground sewage, telephone cables, electricity, a thousand overlaid maps. They’d not talked about maps, really. Everything else was game — politics, literature, travel — just nothing about what he did for a living.
That night, he made her an atlas. It was probably too early for that, but he started anyway. He flipped through the collection of binders that lined the back of his desk and removed sheets. He always included several historical maps of the territory, surveys from the original German settlement that grossly distorted the land’s contours. Of course, he would include functional representations as well. He had a pretty good supply from her neighborhood. He’d actually done a survey there a year earlier, his second assignment at the new job.
Mostly, though, the atlas would be about sequencing, the context of one map to the next, and their beauty. From his desk, he took several sheets of transparent paper. At the office, he could print some color overlays. That was a good idea. His last girlfriend had understood the maps right away. He frowned when he thought about her. She’d looked through the book with intense interest, running her finger over certain segments, as if tracing a path implicit in the arrangement. She’d tucked the atlas carefully into her bag, and disappeared for good. At two, he switched off the radio, tucked the new maps into an accordion folder and went to sleep.
They talked on Wednesday. Thursday, he reproduced the maps into small foldouts. Friday, he used the binder at the office to collate them into a paperback-sized volume. It had to be functional. He flipped through the pages, and liked the way the transparencies slid against his fingers. That weekend, she had a girlfriend in from out of town. Sunday night, he left for a surveying job outside the city. "Call me when you get back," she’d told him. He spent three days in a motel, in bed by nine each night, and up at five.
"The neighborhood isn’t so bad, where the library is," she said over dinner at the good Mexican joint on 101st. "There’s this big lot next door, surrounded by corrugated fencing so you can’t really see inside, except where the gate is open. When I walk by in the morning, there’s a dog there. He’s usually sleeping. When he’s not, he’s very calm, always mellow. Looks like a nice dog. But when I head home at night and walk by, the gate is closed. And he barks at me, goes completely mad. Barks at everybody, I think. I wonder what happens in there that would do that to him."
"Oh," he said, "maybe it’s like Schrger’s cat."
"Who?" she said.
And he attempted to explain about the physicist’s paradoxical feline, existing parallel in a state of whole catness and simultaneously disintegrated by hydrocyanic acid. She giggled, and told him about her grandmother, a crazy cat lady. Again, the conversation proceeded through numerous byways, none of which had the slightest bit to do with maps, or even anything he could relate to maps.
"Come over tomorrow night," she told him. "I"ll make you dinner." She gave him the address. "When you get off the bus, walk down the hill. It flattens out a little, make a left there. Then, you turn left again after the rusted-out Ford. I’m not sure the name of the street. My street is the one with the Stop sign that has the ‘WAR’ bumper sticker under where it says ‘STOP.’" At the end of the night, the atlas still sat in his backpack.
When he got to her neighborhood, he followed her directions. The street stretched downwards for much longer than he anticipated. He, too, studied the ground, trying to feel it level off, as she said. He paid attention to the soles of his feet, the slant of the sidewalk. It stretched on endlessly, the cement, filled with a network of cracks that it could take a cartographer a lifetime to catalog. Eventually, he found the turn.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at

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