Categories
fiction issue 32

Cartography

by Alan Ackmann                                                                                     

Limited art prints, the color of the whole picture is purple, and the purple woman in the middle her white hair becomes a vortex and is integrated into the white LAMER below
Blessing by Wowser Ng

Cartography

The science of mapmaking, in the end, is the science of separating what is known from what has yet to be discovered.”

— Fromner’s Comprehensive Atlas, 1978

It’s eleven-thirty at night in mid-November. Arthur and his wife Deb are staring each other down in a rest stop lobby somewhere in central Illinois. They’re frightfully tired, but neither is budging. Arthur’s hands are in his pockets.

“No,” He tells her. “No.”

            Deb stares pleadingly. She’s holding a handwritten sign with an arrow scrawled in black marker. Below the arrow are the words Free Kitten. But there’s no kitten; only the sign.

“Please,” Deb says, “It’s probably lost.”

            “Someone probably took it home.”

            “Then why didn’t they throw away the sign? The trash can’s there, right there.”

            She points off to the corner. There it is.

            “Deb, we’re packed up to the gills.”

            “We’d make room if we find it. If it’s here, just let me see that it’s okay.”

            On any other day, he’d stand his ground. He’d point out that they didn’t have a carrier, or food, and couldn’t hold a kitten on their laps all the way to Chicago. He might say she was ridiculous; people abandoned kittens all the time. But Deb’s father had died a few months ago. They’re heading back from his old home in St. Louis, which they’ve just put up for sale with her two brothers. This is their sixth trip to St. Louis since he died, and who knew how many more before that—five or six a year. Deb didn’t like making the drive by herself, so Arthur ferried her repeatedly across three-hundred miles of farmland. But the house stood empty now; they’d priced ten thousand under market. And when they’d left, she hadn’t called it going home; she’d called it going to St. Louis. So yeah, Deb gets some slack.

            “How do you plan to find the thing, exactly?”

            Deb heaves open the hatch of their Prius, which is bursting with things from the house. She rummages through a bag of food from the pantry, removes a pouch of tuna, and tears it open. She drops some in an empty cup and gives the pouch to him. It crinkles.

            “Fifteen minutes. After that, we can go.”

            Arthur agrees.

            This isn’t an unprecedented situation. Early in their marriage, they’d found an injured zebra finch in a grocery store parking lot. It could only fly a couple of yards before it flap-flopped down to asphalt. He wanted to leave it, but Deb insisted they help. It escaped from a pet store, she declared. It couldn’t survive on its own. After she’d caught it (that amazed him) she’d sent him back into the store to find it shelter. The only option they could afford was a Hello Kitty butterfly cage, ages eight and up. Deb’s face broke with happiness.

“Perfect,” she said, “That’s absolutely perfect.”

            She’s always been nicer than he is.

***

            “Don’t have an estate sale,” her father had insisted. “They’re depressing.”

            This was on one of their last coherent visits, just after insurance moved him to assisted living. His room was desolate, a nineteen-inch television and scattered photographs. As he’d accepted that he wasn’t going home, his chattiness had faded. At their wedding reception, he’d once shared a ten-minute conversation with Arthur’s uncle about what light bulbs were best, his opinions well-versed and passionate. Now his style resembled Arthur’s terseness.

But he was clear about this.

            “I don’t care who you give it all to. Just find someone who needs it.”

            Her father, though, had eighty-three years of books, bills, bric-a-brac. Deb wanted to wait until he passed, but Deb had two brothers, who each had spouses, and everyone had opinions. First there was her younger brother Toby, a gruffly spoken, bullish man who’d once worked as a prison guard, but quit after an inmate jumped him in the yard. Now he did something in security. Toby was married to a mousy woman named Sarah who, at gatherings, never spoke to the table at large, only to the person sitting next to her. Deb’s older brother, Carl, owned a string of donut shops in South St. Louis, which were bringing in, “a shitload of money, Artie, really. I can’t keep up with it.” Carl’s wife Christine was a red-cheeked woman from deep Mississippi, active in her local church and skeptical of “Yankee leanings.” Of all of them, Deb’s father considered her to be most trustworthy, and had given her power of attorney. Despite living in Chicago, she was also sole executor, an authority she bore solemnly and stressfully.

Early in the death, she’d warned, “They aren’t going to be much help, you know.” She was referring to her brothers. “When it comes down to it, this is going to be our job.”

            Their job totaled twelve trips—almost eight thousand miles of driving. The first trip came when they moved her father to the facilty, bearing three small boxes of practical things and a smaller box of precious ones. Doctors, initially, encouraged him to take bus trips to Wal-Mart, to buy his own groceries and books. He was sick, they said, but strong. That encouragement didn’t last, though, and her father faded quickly. The second visit came two months later. Deb had wanted one more conversation, but the talking made him tired. Visits three and four were medical, once when he’d complained of chest pains and demanded to be taken to the hospital, and once when he’d heaved himself out of bed and fallen. On visit five, he seemed unsure who Deb and Arthur were, but trusted them enough that they could calm him. In between visits five and six he started calling relatives, spouting nonsense and refusing medicine until he’d said his piece, and Deb had wept. On visit six, they all tried unsuccessfully to get him to drink once he stopped eating, and then sat in vigil as he died, united. The seventh visit had been inventory, cataloging the estate, and on visits eight through ten the house was emptied. On the eleventh visit, the only one he made alone, Arthur oversaw maintenance, getting the house up to code. On visit twelve, they’d purged remaining clutter and signed documents, and it is this visit they are heading home from now.

            And instead of making headway, he is looking for a cat.

At Deb’s insistence, they’ve split up to cover ground, she towards the semi-trucks, he towards the woods. The rest stop is barren of travelers, but some lights are on inside the trucker’s cabs. Arthur remembers something about how a trucker’s hood left up at night was a signal for prostitution, and while he doesn’t want to spend the next few hours hearing Deb’s horror at being solicited, he really needs a moment to himself. As Arthur meanders a dog-walking trail, he listens to winter and birds, and thinks again about the finch.

Here’s the thing they’d discovered about finches: despite being classified as pets, finches didn’t much care that you were there at all. Owners are insolent bringers of food, to a finch. They don’t show affection, spite, or even interest—but they do need other finches. Zebra finches, a pet-store salesman told them, cannot live alone; they spiral into deep, mysterious depression. So after two weeks of convincing herself that their finch was suicidal, Deb grew upset too—staring into the cage from many angles, searching for however finches show the blues.

Arthur suggested setting it free, now that its wing was better.

Deb bought a second finch.

Arthur didn’t like this pattern. Finches seemed fragile but wouldn’t be so melodramatic as to die at the same time, wing-to-wing, so there’d always be one finch left. Mathematically, it was irreconcilable, and he wasn’t about to entertain a revolving door of finches for eternity.

He’d confront that problem later, though; for the moment, she was happy.

There were lots of moments like that, in those days. Deb’s instinct, especially then, had been to share her natural contentment with the world, and if that contentment went unreturned it was often a source of sadness and confusion. A trusting hippie holdover who wore henna tattoos in college and sincerely believed that tea had healing powers, she’d struck Arthur as charming when they met through a friend. She was working, then, towards a degree in elementary education from a neighboring university, her yearning for everyone’s strengths suiting her perfectly for children—a group he considered cutthroat negotiators. Her benevolence was not, however, an attitude Arthur shared. His parents split up when he was young, and he’d been raised assuming that rancor and secrecy were as natural as poorly chosen Christmas presents. Today, he worked in a law office specializing in divorce, and had witnessed countless times how love could curdle. In dealing with her father’s estate, however, Deb’s kindness blinded her to what he’d seen immediately: she seemed as suited to the role of executor as he was to that of birdkeeper.

“I don’t understand why you’re executor,” Catherine (her older brother’s wife, the Southern Belle) had mused one evening, stirring coleslaw. The siblings had brought barbecue back to their father’s house after a rest home visit on the fifth trip, the one where he hadn’t known who they were. Catherine considered the sauce inauthentic, not like in Mississippi. She continued, “Carl is oldest; he’s chief mourner. It should be his responsibility.”

“Well, it was dad’s decision.”

“Right. As much as he can make decisions now.”

“It’s been in the books for years, hun,” Carl said, wiping his mouth, “No point revisiting it.”

“But you’re the one with the business degree. Don’t you think you’re better suited than a teacher?”

“She has Arthur; it’ll all be fine.”

“I just don’t want you feeling overwhelmed.” Catherine looked at Deb with vacant kindness and then glanced around the kitchen. Things were everywhere—on counters, racks and tables, chairs and shelves. Behind Catherine was a hand-drawn map of their local farming center, which Deb’s father had made in his days as a surveyor, a job he got after the war. Catherine sighed. “I still think we should donate most of this; it’s not like it has value.”

“That’s not true,” Deb began.

“Donate it to who?” Toby the ex-guard belted. “He don’t even go to church.”

            “I know,” Catherine replied.

            “I know an auctioneer from college,” Arthur said, “I can call him to appraise some things.”

            “Is he trustworthy?” Catherine asked, “I don’t want some hayseed cattle-caller.”

            “Cathy, please,” Carl said, rolling his eyes.

            “We,” Deb said, raising her voice “will arrange all this when the time comes. Not before.”

            She said this as firmly as she could, but it didn’t quite meet the effect. Even when talking with adults, Deb sometimes slipped into her teacher’s voice, which worked on nine-year-olds. Catherine replied, “Of course” and Sarah, Toby’s wife (who Arthur had forgotten was there) asked someone to pass the beans. Truth told, Arthur agreed with Catherine; these were exactly the conversations they should be having now, while rational. But who was he to pick fights with a woman whose father was dying?

            “Why did you mention an auctioneer?” Deb demanded, once everyone left. They’d cancelled cable and internet and could talk only to each other. “Now they’re going to want to use him.”

            “Well, I thought a neutral party might treat everybody fairly.”

            “They’ll never trust him,” she insisted.

            “I was trying to be helpful.”

            “If I need your help, I’ll tell you.”

            They left that visit having settled nothing. On the drive through Illinois, though, Deb started crocheting again. A few years into their marriage, when his hours at the law firm stretched, and his reluctance to have children strained their bond, their house had filled with afghans, baby blankets, hats, gloves, scarves, and granny squares. Even now, on their twelfth trip home, she’s got a canvas bag of yarn under the passenger seat, unskiening and reshaping it. Back then, it had gotten worse after the finch. After a year, its beak had started swelling—eventually to twice its normal length. The vet told them it had a tumor, but it wasn’t always fatal. Sure enough, the finch continued living, ignoring them and chirping like an avian Pinocchio. Then one day, while Deb was in St. Louis (for a simple family visit, nothing big) Arthur woke to find the finch on the bottom of the cage. He decided not to tell Deb until she returned a week later, but he did observe the remaining finch for signs of adjustive malaise. The little birdie seemed unruffled, though, and just when Arthur was ready to write off the whole two-finches thing as a conspiracy of the pet store trade, he woke to silence for the first time in years and found the companion finch motionless as well.      

Problem solved.

            But Deb was furious.

            “You don’t get to not tell me things. You don’t decide what I know.”

            She wasn’t upset the finch had died; she was upset he hadn’t told her. This confused him. He hadn’t wanted to ruin her trip, and there was nothing she could have done. It wasn’t like he’d hidden it. In retrospect though, that was when their problems became undeniable. She’d stopped trusting him, for a while, and her cheerfulness had shadowed. At one point, she accused him of killing the finches out of spite, since he’d always hated them, and the ridiculousness of this crested to hopelessness. So in response, he’d stopped indulging her. With Deb’s kindness had always come a tendency to be taken advantage of. She refused to turn down colleague requests to, for example, cover a break period, or assume committee work, and then complain about feeling overwhelmed. Back in college, coming from a family where graciousness suggested weakness, he’d been drawn to this generosity, wanting to nourish it. Now things he’d once admired seemed foolish, and her problems were her problems. Arthur loved her, that was true at least, but he just didn’t see the sense in saving things that did not want saving.

            Death had redirected both of them.

Once the pageantry of the funeral was over, proper distribution of the estate began, and the duty’s sheer immensity had crowded out the piles built up between them. She had to trust him with so much, so did, and the tenderness of grief redeemed her kindness. As a starting measure, Deb proposed that she and her brothers each go through the house and select five things they wanted most. They tagged them with post-it notes, while Arthur, Sarah, and Catherine, the encroachers, sat on the porch swing drinking expired Diet Coke. There were no overlaps among their post-it choices, but protocol soon broke down. Catherine and Carl arrived with spreadsheets, and insisted on monetizing everything, cleaving circulation evenly, and refusing to sign off until an item was appraised if needed (Deb was right; they called the appraiser mercilessly). Deb was forthcoming about finances, but Catherine wanted statement copies anyway, which Deb provided. Their scrupulous tracking, though, offended Toby, who suspected he’d wind up shortchanged, and so he conjured up attachments to things his brother wanted. Sarah’s resolve for justice, though, was pettier. “Who’s going to get this,” she demanded, holding a box of zip-lock bags. “It has to go to someone.” But rather than being emotional, his Deb was patient and exacting, soothing tension and distinguishing desire from bickering, just like her father hoped. But her generosity faltered once it was clear that neither brother would come help out unless they were leaving with something. They seemed to take her executorship as proof that heavy work should rest with her.

“They’ve always been like this,” Deb declared, while Arthur held her hand. “It’s not their fault, I guess.”

            And inside was still so much stuff.

            Arthur had never observed death closely, and even more startling than its grisliness was its aftermath. Deb’s father organized important things, but unimportant items were chaotic. Jumbled drawers, heaving shelves, a stand-alone freezer with TV dinners no one else enjoyed. A drop leaf desk held unpaid bills, resulting in calls to unsympathetic utilities; there were closets Arthur had never noticed, filled with matchbooks from vacations and playbills for state fairs twenty years past; there were dozens of photo albums, and three voltammeters stacked between jars of screws; there were his wartime medals. Beneath the stairs were faded newspapers. Some dates had clear significance, like the front page from the Cardinals’ 1982 World Series win, but most were meaningless. Toby the ex-guard found an envelope with almost four-hundred dollars cash and a handwritten note reading, “George’s” (none of them knew who that was); under the bed, Arthur found a shirt-box containing Playboysfrom the seventies, which he threw away before Deb could see. Arthur had never even called his father-in-law by name, but the intimacy of these possessions made him feel protective.

            And protection, they discovered, was required.

            When Deb first noticed things were missing, she thought she imagined it. A sentimental ornament. A set of tools. Small things. But as their eighth trip brought them deeper, Deb grew more convinced that things weren’t right. Her mother’s jewelry box had been stripped down, costume pieces she’d tried on as a girl now absent. Half-remembered antiques in the attic, she believed, had now gone missing—wedding china plates, holiday silver, a wood burned crate from the Anheuser brewery that used to live on the hearth. Through tears, at first, Deb blamed herself, convinced that strangers had ransacked the house before they’d even started cleaning it. When she finally wondered, aloud and disbelieving, whether one of her brothers might have taken these things, Arthur jumped in too aggressively and she retreated.

            “They wouldn’t,” Deb insisted, “No, they’re family.”

            Soon, though, Deb was grabbing everything of value she could find, monetary or otherwise. She unhooked the stereo and Blu-Ray player they’d given their father a few Christmases ago, and shoved them into the Prius. She boxed up mason jars from her mother’s canning phase, and stuffed old baseball caps into a Hefty bag. She went through her father’s office and grabbed maps he’d made back in the seventies, zoning layouts for subdivisions long since bulldozed during the 2004 Lambert Airport expansion. The maps were sealed in tubes and, when unrolled, covered six square feet apiece. When Arthur explained that they didn’t have room, that nobody would want them, Deb clutched the maps destructively.

            “These took work. You understand me? They took work.”

            So they loaded the car with forgotten directions to places that didn’t exist and headed home.

Before they left, though, Deb changed all the locks.

Just past Springfield, Deb got a call from Carl. He’d been over to mow the lawn, and when he went in to clean his shoes, his key wasn’t working. When Deb explained, he heard Carl yelling through the phone. Deb yelled back, and Arthur pulled the Prius over to a rest stop (the same one in which he’s now hunting for the cat). After some furious laps around the trail, she said they needed to turn around. There were things to be discussed.

“You can’t do this,” Catherine declared, eyes bulging as they gathered on the lawn. “A third of that house is Carl’s. One third. And he has a right to go in there. Arthur tell her.”

From the porch swing, Arthur said, “He has a right.”

“No,” Deb insisted, her face resolute, “No they don’t.”

“Oh, come on,” Catherine retorted, “Just because you’re married to a lawyer doesn’t mean that you’re the only one who has one.”

Deb held her shaky ground bravely at first. Carl and Toby initially yielded to Catherine’s histrionics, but as she reached a pitch they took the lead. Sarah asked if she was sure that things were even missing, while Carl, through gritted teeth, reassured Deb they had no idea where anything might have gone. Toby, meanwhile, insisted that he didn’t even remember the items Deb described (which Arthur believed). But all of them were plainly furious, even quiet Sarah. Then Toby said, “For all we know, you took them.” Deb negotiated plaintively, with pathos but no proof; she kept repeating “no.” Then she looked at the planters on the front steps, growing withered and, as she described on the ride home, she realized someone would need to water them. Eventually, she gave them both a key. But they all agreed that, in the future, there would always be at least two people in the house, from at least two sets of spouses, and that Deb and Arthur would no longer stay at the empty house alone.

“You believe me, don’t you?” Deb asked later.

Arthur said, of course he did.

“Great,” Deb said exhaustedly, “Cause I’m not even sure if I believe me.”

            As the house grew emptier, they made an exception to the two visitors rule for maintenance tasks—though Arthur suspected Toby and Carl were just avoiding chores. And so it was that Arthur, on his eleventh visit (the only one he made alone) found himself heading back to the house after a trip to the safe deposit box to calculate savings bonds, of which there were over a hundred. At Deb’s request, he’d been figuring it so that each sibling got the same number of bonds, at both equivalent current value and anticipated interest. This task complete, he had just enough time to measure his father-in-law’s kitchen for new tile—a hutch placed over a heating vent had dripped wood stain and ruined the linoleum.

But as Arthur pulled up, he saw Sarah and Toby’s Lumina in the driveway.

            Arthur parked behind them. When he entered, Sarah stood up from behind some boxes in the otherwise empty living room.  But she’d shoved something under some workshirts.

“Arthur, what you doing here?”

            Arthur said he was doing some work and walked over to the boxes. He’d packed them himself and he would know if anything was gone. Instead, there was something new: a shoebox of jewelry. He didn’t know if pieces were missing, but the ones here were valuable. Sarah tugged her sweater.

            “I put it back, you see? I put it back. Shit, Toby doesn’t even know I took it.”

He asked about other missing things, and Sarah swore she didn’t know. As Arthur dug through boxes, his heart pounded. The bonds valued out at over ten-thousand dollars per couple, fragments of wealth that weren’t grand but should have been more than sufficient.

            “We’ve got debts,” Sarah explained.

            “You’re getting a third of the estate. We’re going to sell the house.”

            “Selling a house takes time, you know that Arthur; I just needed something just in case. Besides, you know Toby never gets his fair shake.” When Arthur said nothing, she shrugged and rolled her eyes. “I didn’t expect you’d understand. That’s why I snuck it back. Just don’t tell Debbie, will you? Please? I don’t want her mad at Toby.”

            Arthur wouldn’t help her lie; he’d come too far for that. Still he decided, like with the finch, to wait till the proper time. And that might have happened if, when Deb discovered the missing jewelry, he hadn’t said he’d found it in the safe deposit box. The lie had come out with the smoothness of truth, and in its aftermath she’d wept, then called her brothers to apologize. For the next few weeks, her joyfulness returned, the future full of gratitude and hope. And though he knew the scrape of secrecy, he told himself that harmony, not bruising truth, was best. Then, when they all met with the realtor and agreed upon a price, a false finality began to settle. Sarah sat talking to no one but Toby, and her unchanged behavior seemed to accept his endorsement of her choice, which outraged him. If he hadn’t walked in, what would she have done? And what was still left undiscovered? As the meeting ended, there were smiles. But as they crossed into Illinois, Deb’s mood grew sullied, and the car seemed full of silent accusation. The need to unburden himself felt like panic, and Arthur rehearsed phrases, explored his guilt, until eventually he pulled over to the rest stop, unable to take it. Now, instead of charting back to openness and safety, they’re still looking for a cat.

And after twenty minutes, Arthur finds it.

It’s huddled behind the vending machine for dehydrated coffee. He can barely hear meows above the hum. This isn’t a kitten, but isn’t full-grown, and she looks at him with deep mistrust and longing. Arthur’s certain she’s a she. Her eyes are grey, like everything about her, and when a fellow traveler pushing buttons awakens the machine she flinches but doesn’t flee.

            “What you looking at back there?” the stranger asks.

            “Nothing,” Arthur replies.

            He’s already decided not to keep her. Still, he wrinkles the packet of tuna, curious. The cat’s tail twitches, and her ears are back. She’s scared, but she’ll be fine here on her own. There’s no reason for Deb to know he’s found her.

            He has, however, decided that he’ll tell her about Sarah now.

            And he believes this. On his way back, Arthur is resolute. He scans the waiting trucks for Deb, but spots her in the lobby, hunched and fanning herself with the Free Kitten sign, its arrow pointing everywhere. The harsh light shows her age, and he remembers how, back when they’d gone to separate colleges, they’d rendezvous at places like this, friends or friends of friends dropping her off on the way to other destinations. Sometimes they’d even offer to stay, anxious about leaving her for someone who might not be coming. But he always came, of course. Arthur stares at her through the glass. When he enters she tosses the sign like a Frisbee.

            “Stupid. I know it’s stupid.”

            Arthur offers her the tuna and she takes some with her fingers.

            “Well,” she says after a moment, “I just hope it finds a home.”             “I’ll bet,” he says, “it’s on its way already.”

Alan Ackmann has an MFA in fiction from the University of Arkansas and teaches writing at DePaul University in Chicago. Their fiction has appeared in Louisiana Literature, Ontario Review, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere.

Chinese artist Wowser Ng is based in London where he graduated with an MA from University of the Arts London. Brightly-colored digital paintings provide new possibilities for Asia queer depiction in abstract and figurative works. Ng challenges pop culture by appropriating fashion products to form visual narratives and uses stylized abstract images in his research.