This is a short story I wrote as part of an Advanced Creative Writing course at SUNY Cortland in the Fall of 2014. It’s not my best work, and I’ve surpassed it many times since, but I haven’t published a piece of fiction here in quite some time. It’s an immature story, but I still feel something for it and look back at it fondly. I’d like to publish something of more substance on this site soon (I’m in a fiction writing class here at Buffalo, too, where I come up with lots of shorter ideas that are unpublishable in any medium other than a personal blog). p.s.- currently still working on my autobiographical novel and a special short story dealing with unconscious and involuntary memories. My seminars this spring include classes on digital medias, environmental criticism, 20th century intensified postmodern fiction and the aforementioned fiction writing class.
Hope you guys enjoy.
Maps and Maplessness
On the morning my brother George was killed while merging onto the highway heading home from California and whatever he’d found there, he wrote something in his journal I’ve carried with me ever since: “We are cold and we are lost, but on mornings when there is no rain, we are rich men indeed.”
My roommate Sam and I were hiding off a side road on the edge of a cornfield two weeks later, right on a ridge where trees of muted orange and yellow met the decaying gold furrows of a New York autumn. We huddled by our fire, taking advantage of the evening to stand on our feet, which we hadn’t done all day, and used the last daylight of today to plan how best to use the daylight of tomorrow.
“71 will bring us close to the mountains,” I said, “ but we’ll be hitting traffic bound for the city.”
Sam took the map from my hands. We always chose the scenic route over the quicker one, and did our best to avoid highways because there was a need to rush when driving on one. These were two points of good-travelling George had outlined in his journal. I was tired and didn’t care where we went. Sam looked at the map for a moment and then walked away toward the ridge.
“Grab the tent for me and I’ll start setting it up,” I told him. The tent we were using to sleep in was in the basket on the side of his motorcycle, one he’d borrowed from his father. “Sam, I want to go to sleep. Grab me the tent,” I yelled, but he kept walking. “Where are you going?” I shouted.
“I’m going to find water,” he said.
“Well, I’m pitching the tent,” I said firmly. “At least bring some back with you,” I yelled to him.
It was a long day and I thought about just finding a tree to lay up against and nod off to sleep. I was tempted but knew my indefinite future was to be spent with my spine heaped on a motorcycle for 14 hours a day, and I knew it could rain up here any time and I’d probably sleep right through it until I was soaked and shivering.
When the stakes for the tent were all hammered in I got a can of pork and beans out from my bag and took the frying pan we were using from Sam’s bike and began heating them over the coals. The pan was still dirty from the eggs we’d made earlier that morning but I didn’t care and popped the beans in anyway. When I put the grease bin away I noticed one of the eggs had broken in the plastic bag we kept them in and had been heating all day in the hot motorcycle bag. The broken egg, crushed Sameath the weight of the other half-dozen or so, floated in a thin yellow paste peppered with white shell-pieces. The rotten-egg stew smelled of unknowable disease as I opened the bag and immediately upon reacting to the stench I flung it away toward a tall willow twenty feet into the trees. I went back to the fire and took the beans off and ate them cold before putting half back on the coals to heat for Sam whenever he wandered back.
After I slept for about an hour I woke to hear him eating as he sat on the meditation pillow he’d insisted on bringing. I’d been realizing for a few days now just how truly unprepared we were for everything and now it all was beginning to boil over.
“Find any water?” I muttered.
“Yes. Far away.” He motioned toward a resealed Poland Springs bottle sitting by his feet. “You know, Ben, maybe we should start heading back.”
“You know,” he said, cracking the knuckles of each finger individually, “maybe we should head back to school. We’ve only missed the first week. We’ve only missed syllabus week. We could still go back and nothing would be any different.”
He was losing faith. I knew he’d end up going back now.
“Sam, you made a promise. You promised you’d stay out here with me as long as it took. We both made promises.”
“In the morning I’m going back,” he said.
“No,” I said, and rolled over inside the tent so I was facing away from him. “No,” I thought, looking down into the silky abyss of the black tent fabric. “No. No.”
I laid in the tent for what felt like hours and for the whole time I was awake Sam sat outside by the fire, flaking the mud off his boots and applying and reapplying his black bandana to his head.
“How can you justify doing anything but this?” Nothing was making sense now. I was in that state of semi-consciousness when you get so caught up in your thoughts that sleep itself becomes a state of anxiety and even your dreams are of times when you won’t need to think and in this state you are never sure if the events surrounding you are real or imaginary, if your words are sounds or if they are just something your worries have created and all you know is you can’t trust your own sense of reality and it’s not going to end at any definite time… In the haze of the tension of the world I looked up at the cornfield illuminated under the light of the moon and saw George’s pale and unchanging face wandering through the maze of the rotting cornstalks, his eyes lost and worried and unsure how to get out toward any place worth going, everything melting around him and still no where to go…
That night we slept in the tent and cleaned nothing of our dinner, put nothing away, left the day-old heated eggs sitting underneath the willow tree where I’d thrown the bag of them and surely cracked them all, and in the starlight approaching dawn when I heard paw-steps meandering over like the ever-present ghost following me I hoped with all my life and all the life to ever be lived that it might be a grizzly bear come to look me in the eyes and judge me, for then I might know what value and meaning was truly able to be found and the foggy illusions chained to my thoughts might dissipate like ash as the fires of being kept burning, burning, burning, and if the grizzly came and looked at my eyes like clear iridescent blue-tinged salmon he might lift his paw and in his apathy toss my thoughts back into the river they came from and if he came everything would be settled, George and I both gone to nothingness, ash and clay, bright or black. All my life was inside the bear who sat at the top of the hill, eating what I’d thrown to him.