Reprinted from the Chicago Quarterly Review (summer 2008)
Do you know where we are?”
“There are no lights. I’ve never seen a city like this.”
“I know where we are.”
Eve pulled on her fingers, one by one, to crack them. Frank drove and she watched the road. When she finished with both hands, she said, “I wish there were people around.”
She wanted to ask how Frank could be so certain. He had a better sense of direction than she did, at least in the city. Cities always confused her. They were so square. Boxes piled on boxes.
She added: “Should I look at the map?”
“The scale is too big,” Frank answered. “These streets aren’t on the map.”
“But the main road is.”
“That won’t help until we’re on it. A map’s useless if you can’t find your own point.” He slapped the steering wheel. They drove in silence for a few minutes, before he added: “These damned streets are like a maze. The main road is south.”
Frank hesitated, then pointed left: “That way.”
They kept trying to go south. But the roads drifted away, turned, or ended. Frank tried going west in search of a north-south artery. The roads heading west soon turned north, or south then east, or became just plain confusing. With proper 90 degree turns he could keep track of north. But with every soft turn, his errors in estimation added up and his grip on the compass became more fuzzy.
Frank said: “I wish they had better signs.”
“There’s one,” Eve pointed.
“Yeah, but what the hell does it mean?” He slowed, stopped in front of the sign, far enough to shine his high-beams up to it. It was black-on-yellow, professionally made, the type of sign you’d see on American highways or German autobahns, and it spanned the entire space above the narrow road. It reached from one building to another. But the picture made no sense.
It looked like half a horse lying on the ground, trying to get up. The horse had one wing.
“Why don’t they use words?” Eve complained.
“Pictoral signs are more intelligent. In case foreigners come.”
Eve looked at Frank with a grin. As though he were crazy.
“We’ve lived in America too long,” he said, then leaned over to kiss her. Because she had smiled. Then he shrugged and gestured towards the sign. “Maybe that’s a universal sign for something, and everyone outside America knows what it means. Except for us.”
“Like those funny empty red circles in Europe.”
“Those mean that it’s a one-way street, and you’re going the right way.”
“If you’re going the right way, you don’t need a sign. When we’re lost we need a sign. And we don’t need it to be half a dead horse with a wing.”
“It’s not dead. It’s trying to stand up. Maybe the empty circle means that the road is closed. I can’t remember. Anyway, we’re not lost. Listen.” Frank rolled down the window of their small rental car, a yellow Geo Metro. They heard the faint, distant sounds of highway traffic. Trucks, air brakes, the whizzing of high-speed cars, all refracted and bounced by the dark squeezing buildings around them. They couldn’t use the sound for orientation, and they couldn’t see anything. Without their headlights it would have been pitch black. There were no stars, no lamps on the streets or inside the buildings. Frank turned off the headlights.
“Turn them back on,” Eve said, slightly panicked, touching Frank’s leg.
“Somebody might ram into us. We’re in the middle of a road.”
“We haven’t seen another car here yet.”
They sat in the dark, silent. Eve squeezed Frank’s knee and he played with her fingers, pressing the fleshy part between them, the pressure points.
Finally, Eve asked: “Why are we sitting in the dark?”
“The cars on the highway have the only lights. If we wait, maybe we’ll be able to see
heir glow over the buildings and figure out which way the highway is.”
They waited. Eve kept watching behind, worried that someone would hit them. Frank looked upward through the windshield, his face near the dashboard. Suddenly, Frank’s leg slipped away and the inside ceiling light blinded Eve. Frank opened the door and went out.
“Come back in here. It’s not safe out there,” Eve said and gasped as the light went out. She was completely blind. She heard the roof of the little car pop and bend like cheap tin. She recognized the sound of Frank’s boots. He was on the roof.
He climbed back into the car with a new flash of light. Then it was dark again.
“Did you see anything?” she said to the warmth within the void.
“That way,” Frank pointed forward, though she couldn’t see his hand. He started the car.
They came to a small intersection, after passing a dozen identical intersections. Frank turned left. There was another sign. This one was fuzzy, the picture had been washed out by the weather. They’d passed many like that, but for this one Frank slowed. He flashed the high-beams on it. “That’s weird.”
“It looks like that sign was made that way. Smeared.”
They kept going, Frank turned left and right as though he was certain of their direction. Eve trusted him, but they drove so long that she began to doubt he could have seen so far from the roof. He couldn’t have. She knew he oriented himself by the compass in his brain, not by trees or buildings or reality, as she would have. And if he had seen the direction, he could keep it in mind while turning. Until he found the way out. It had happened many times during their life of driving through cities and countries together. But it had never been so dark or the streets so winding. And she couldn’t help but be suspicious of his orientation without reference to reality.
“Maybe it’s because of your thing,” Eve said, despite herself.
Frank closed his eyes without taking his foot off the gas. “Do you have to bring that up now?”
“Because of your affair.”
He opened his eyes, but his voice was cold now. “We’ve been through this at least three hundred times. I didn’t have an affair. And I’m trying to pay attention to the road.”
They were both silent.
Eve said: “Whatever you call it.”
“How on earth could you relate even this,” he pointed with both open hands to the empty road and city. The car drifted left slightly before he squeezed the wheel, fighting an urge to let the car go, to see where it hit. “To that?”
“We’re lost. It’s dark. And the signs are confusing.”
“Your mind interprets everything through your fears. Even the geography. It doesn’t work the other way around.”
“Geography is a constant. It doesn’t change based on us being happy or sad.”
“Sad,” she said.
“Stop it,” he said.
They drove in silence. They passed signs of all sorts. Crazy signs. Most were illegible, but some they could easily make out. There was a sign at every intersection, and there was an intersection every twenty yards. But not a single sign made sense. It fit. It was almost funny. But he didn’t want to think about it.
They passed under a sign that looked like a farmer farming. Next to him was a fence and a tree.
“That’s a fig tree,” Eve said.
“How can you tell?”
“I’m a gardener. And I know figs.”
They continued, looking at the signs with more and more interest. Every few intersections Eve would say, “Look!” and point to a sign.
Frank resisted. “I have to pay attention to the road. Where we’re going.”
“The signs are telling us.”
“Sure. Do you understand them?
“No. But that’s because you need to pay attention to them as well.”
“Sort of like 3-D glasses? Dual-focus road signs, for couples only?”
Eve didn’t respond and, despite his own sarcasm, Frank began to pay more attention to the signs. The expense of putting up so many signs argued against them being random, or purely absurd. An art project, perhaps? Unlikely on that sort of scale, in a city this box-like in architecture. And yet the signs were so strange that he began to doubt that it would be a simple matter of foreign meaning. As the probability of each hypothesis approached zero, it became impossible to dismiss any of them. So they drove, and Frank watched the signs together with Eve: locust, iron, something that could only have been bacon with little lines emanating from it, swarms of bees, birds and bats, a saltshaker, machinery, an enormous half-abstract picture of the endless city, box upon box, a driver’s license inside a red circle, hundreds of smeared words, and finally the first lettered sign that they could read, different from the rest in that it was a small green triangle on the side of the road. It read: “Blind Adult.”
Wisps of fog floated in the headlights. Frank said, “Fog’s coming.”
They drove on. A bachelor, a mill, a queen, a little family of mushrooms, a crab pinching cabbage, a man picking up another man’s suitcase, even a zebra.
“It’s all nonsense.” Frank cursed. “We have to get out of this damned maze.”
“There’s something wrong with what we’re doing. Do you still know which way to the highway?” Eve asked.
“I think so. What do you think? That way?” Frank pointed.
“I don’t know. I’ve just been watching the signs.”
Frank winced. “Me too.”
They went on in silence again. Frank grew annoyed with the signs. Eve just watched through the window.
He said: “We’re going to run out of gas soon.”
“Maybe you should have kept to your compass and I should have looked at the signs. Then, if we could bring them together somehow.”
“Precision and the soul.”
Eve squeezed Frank’s arm. He stopped whatever he was about to say. Ahead of them they saw the lights of a truck crossing their road, in front and up, high above them. She pointed with her free hand. “Look!”
Their road went up a steep hill, and on the hill, perpendicular to it, they saw the lights of cars and trucks speeding by, reflecting off the fog. With them came the sounds of fast moving traffic. “Is that the highway?”
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“That’s a really steep hill.”
Although the Metro was an automatic, Frank put it in first gear. Its 1.0 litre, three-cylinder engine struggled up to the highway with a high-pitched scream of too many revolutions per second. Traffic flew by, but they couldn’t see the road. Only their little yellow hood pointing to the sky, and their headlights glowing through the fog above them. On the sides, hard buildings formed a wall. Like the catacombs. The columbarium they’d visited years ago. These buildings were worse. Not a single window was open, not a single door. No openings, except for the countless intersections and the sky. No sidewalks or shoulders or places for a human to walk. Only to fly. But he couldn’t fly, however much Eve might want him to. That’s what it was about the city that bothered him: No little spaces between the joints where a human could move, only cars and birds and ghosts.
Frank pulled out slowly, his head pressed against the front windshield to see better, lifting himself against gravity with the steering wheel. The hill flattened as it reached the highway, and the bottom of the car scraped the kink in the hill.
“Watch out!” said Eve.
Frank looked at her and shrugged his hands off the steering wheel. “I can’t.”
He began to inch out, to see better.
“Do you have a better…”
HOOOONKKKK. A Mack truck flew by them, bouncing the entire car as it brushed against their front bumper. Frank and Eve both screamed.
Frank put the car into reverse and quickly backed up. The car tilted backwards onto the steep grade.
“Are you sure about this?”
Frank continues to back up. The grade seems to get steeper and steeper.
“Are you sure we should be backing up?” Eve asks. She stares backwards and down the hill, into the black from which they’d come. She feels her chest crushing in irrevocably, her ribs falling in through her spine. This is the final anxiety, she thinks, and in a low, intense voice, says: “I don’t think we should be backing up.”
Frank continues, his eyes wide open, facing forward as though he still sees the truck scraping their front bumper at 80 miles per hour.
“Frank, stop! Go forward!”
The gradient keeps increasing. The road keeps dropping. Frank realizes that they’re safe from the truck, protected by buildings on either side, strong, solid box-like buildings. He steps on the brakes.
The car slides backwards anyway. Frank puts it into first gear, to go forward. The car continues back, speeding up while its wheels spin forward. Frank looks at Eve. He doesn’t understand. The hill hadn’t been so steep on the way up.
Eve asks: “Do you have your seatbelt on?”