Ms. Rindheart walked into my cubicle, if there’s such a thing as walking into a cubicle. Actually, she was standing just outside, because there was only enough room inside for one body at a time, and right then that body was mine. She saw the scroll I was intently inscribing.
“What are you doing, Henry?” she said. “I hope that’s business.”
Taped-together sheets of paper, my ideal city. Black lines – those are streets; red lines – big streets; big blocky black areas are industrial parks, hospitals, prisons, asylums. That blue line, winding around and meeting itself: that’s the edge of Pond. The blue line that doesn’t is Creek. Yellow lines show city limits where suburbs have taken the high ground. Green lines mark an undetected fault system that will give way about two hundred million years from now, or maybe sooner. Maybe a lot sooner.
“What’s that thing you’re drawing?”
“FlexiCorp, Ms. Rindheart. I’m working on the FlexiCorp proposal.”
Five suburbs, each outlined in yellow. Inside them, wiggly black lines for terraces, and places, and drives, and courts. Suburbs don’t have ‘streets.’ One of the wiggly black lines is called Hunting Creek Court, although there’s no blue line nearby, and no court, and hunting isn’t allowed there anyway.
“I want the FlexiCorp proposal on my desk tomorrow. FlexiCorp is waiting.”
Circles on top some of the thicker red and black lines, and big route numbers in the circles. Then I drew a long, wide boulevard from my house on Hunting Creek Court to my office on Center Street.
She looked at the scroll again.
“Mr. Prince, or should I call you ‘Mercator’? I’ve spoken with the Director. You are to have the complete and finished FlexiCorp proposal tomorrow. Or you will find yourself another job.”
A perfect city, with perfect suburbs. Streets, drives, terraces, courts everywhere, one way and two way, lights timed for those unfortunates who aren’t allowed to drive on Boulevard. But there’s no one here but me.
“Nine a.m. Sharp.”
Maybe a harbor. Escape. Up the creek.
“Yes, Ms. Rindheart.”
Hospitals, prisons, asylums.
“FlexiCorp is waiting.”
Operators are standing by.
“This is very important, Mr. Prince. I hope you understand. I regret having called you ‘Mercator’ just now, but I am extremely frustrated with your lack of attention to the work that has been piling up in this office. A lot is riding on this proposal. For all of us here, but especially for you. Do I make myself clear?”
My streets have names: First, Second, and so on, and going the other way there’s Maple, Alder, Oak, and when I ran out of patriotic trees I used Presidents, from Washington to Harrison, when I didn’t remember who came next, or which Harrison I was at.
Not getting an audible reply to her questions, she left me alone. It was almost five o’clock anyway. Now, what happens at five every day is that I roll up the scroll, last ink not quite dry, place it in its protective tube, cap my colored pens, and go home.
Today, I stopped in the outer office to pass a few pleasantries with the girls. They seemed barely polite, so I didn’t tell them about today’s new streets. They’ve been showing less interest in my work the last few days, anyway.
I took the elevator to the B-3 level, found my car bright red and ready for hot road action, slopy in front and high behind like a sharky wedge. I drove out of the garage. Still light out, warm. Sniffed the other cars, some strong with exertion, others just warming up. Nosed up behind an old maid Chrysler, slid over beside a brawny Corvette.
Boulevard lies ahead, shimmering in the distance.
All the lights were green, just for me. I took the fast lane. No one followed.
I roar, racing down the road, at the top of my lungs, 78 miles an hour, tearing around curves until I realize that I’m on a blue line and not on the road at all. Back up, dry off. Look around, a little embarrassed, to see if anyone notices my little gaffe, but there isn’t anybody. I can’t draw people. I’ve tried. And then I have to cut out a small piece of paper just the right size to cover my mistake and carefully tape it over the attempted little man or woman.
Sedately, a little chastened, I found the road for sure this time, drove carefully to Hunting Creek Court and pulled into my garage, my car now back to its dull and boxy Kia grayness.
“Not especially, no.”
“There’s some mail.”
City Planning Monthly. Airports in real brick and steel, roads that get sticky in the heat, clanking trucks and sweaty drivers, or some plan to mark roads better. I’ve written a few articles for them, although none has appeared in print yet and it’s been quite a while since I reminded the editor that he hadn’t responded.
“Thanks. I’ll read it later.”
From the street I can’t see the route numbers in the circles, so they must have been put there to be seen by aliens from Space. I’m not sure I believe that, but every map needs a legend: that’s mine.
“No wonder they left.”
Tomorrow I’ll draw one-way arrows so I can get across the fault system a little quicker. And I might draw more industrial parks. Always nice to have a park.
“Did you have a good day at the office?”
“FlexiCorp’s moving to the airport grounds.”
“Or maybe to the asylum.”
A moment of silence: I began to fantasize being married to Ms. Rindheart instead of to Jane.
“Henry, I wish you’d stop drawing all those maps. That can’t all be work. At least at home.”
I located Hunting Creek Court on the scroll. Jane wasn’t about to go there. Neither, for sure, was Ms. Rindheart. So far, just me.
Is that the way I want it?
A brand new interstate replacing my old boulevard that had unexpectedly crumbled in scenes of great carnage and a desperately rubbing ink-eraser. Two lines of bright red, with a circle and a low number. Two exits: my driveway and my office garage.
Next morning I drove my new interstate, shaved twenty minutes off my commute. My office building rose before me in all its glassy vacuity, front doors programmed to open automatically if they felt like letting me in or out. I’ve had some embarrassing run-ins with those doors. I’m glad I have a parking space on B-3 where I can use the elevator to go straight up to the fourteenth floor without passing their accusing stare, their dubious shake of electrons.
I was expecting Ms. Rindheart to be at me first thing, but someone else was there instead.
“Hi, Alice. How are things in the Controller’s Office?”
“Well, OK. – the usual stuff. – Henry, –”
“Henry, I think Ms. Rindheart and the Director are talking about you. His door’s closed.”
“That isn’t logical.”
“Yes it is, Henry. Whenever the door’s closed they’re always talking about you. I overhear them sometimes.”
“Thanks for telling me.”
She looked down at my desk.
“– What’s that? A map? Is that Houston? It’s pretty.”
“Their new plant?”
“Something like that.”
“It’s beautiful. Ever been there?”
“The site. That place, wherever it is. Where the new plant’s going to go.”
“All the time.”
“Looks exciting! Better than this dull place. Ah – You could take me there – for lunch or something, sometime. There must be a restaurant. There, that’s a main road, isn’t it? Over there? – And what’s that?”
“That’s the airport.”
Big black U.S. Airways spider in the middle of its web, tempting all the little planes to land on its sticky runways and watch the tiny, terrified passengers try to run away.
“I wouldn’t have guessed. – That’s no way to draw an airport.”
“An airport. I’ll show you.”
Before I could say anything, Alice had picked up one of my pens and drawn on the scroll.
“See? More gates now. And better security, too!”
“And look there. What’s that blue line?”
“A pond needs a park, Henry.”
“Industrial parks are over here, on this next sheet.”
“Not an industrial park, Henry, a park-park. You know, smell the grass? Listen to the birds? Have a picnic? Get some sun? Look. Here.”
She drew something that might have been a park.
“Where’s your green pen? Oh, I see it.”
She colored it in.
“I think you’re just too rigid about this, Henry. People need places to play, ramble, wander around, listen to the city. I’ll bet every street you have is just for cars.”
“OK, and trucks. What about people?”
She drew people. In the park. On the streets. Leaving the airport. Then she drew little marks across one of the downtown streets.
“There! a promenade! A place to walk. No cars allowed. That’s – the Director’s door is opening. I’d better leave.”
So Alice has found my ideal city. But there’s no reason for anyone else to be here, even to walk around, even to have picnics, just wander. Here am I; no one else. – But that park does look inviting. And someone else could –
Ms. Rindheart emerged from the Director’s office and marched my way with firm step and rigid face.
Taped beneath small pieces of cutout paper are my unsuccessful little men and women. I can’t see them from my viewpoint in Space, but I know where they’re buried. Are they trying to chew through the tape, find themselves on the surface, seek shelter in the park?
“Where is the FlexiCorp proposal?”
“Maybe next week.”
FlexiCorp operators are standing by (but some of them are sitting).
“Don’t go home today until I’ve had a chance to speak with you. Privately.”
She turned and walked into her corner office which had room for about seventeen bodies. That’s how we define rank around here: body count.
I skipped a few Presidents and drew a line for Coolidge Street: straight, thin, and going no place in particular. I was considering what kind of street Warren G. Harding would be if Warren G. Harding were a street, when Alice, who had doubtless been listening from around the corner, came back.
“It was bad, wasn’t it?”
“It was bad.”
“That’s too bad,” she said.
“I guess I’ll have to leave.”
“I suppose so. – Where will you go?”
“Somewhere on Maple Street, I think, about –” I looked at the scroll, thought, pointed. “between Third and Fourth.”
“There? Near the park? Not way out in the suburbs? Not Hunting Creek Court?”
“Good for you!” she said. “Is it shady on Maple Street, Henry? I could help you draw some trees.”
“If you want to.”
She drew trees, and birds to nest in them. The birds sang.
“There! Now Maple Street is wonderful! – You know, Henry, I’ve been thinking. – Do you mind – mind if I join you?”
“On Maple Street?”
“On Maple Street. Between Third and Fourth.”
I pondered the implications of this. Sharing my ideal city. Sharing my colored pens.
“I think you just did,” I finally said. “Just joined me, I mean.”
Alice helped me roll up the scroll. We took the elevator to the lobby, walked out through the glass doors which disintegrated at her look. On the corner was a city trash bin (dark rectangle, tiny logo).
“I don’t think we’ll need this anymore, Henry,” she said, tossing my scroll into the bin.
“I guess not,” I said.
“Now, Henry,” she said, taking my arm and turning us left onto a black line. “This is Third Street. Let’s find Maple!”
Terence Kuch‘s checkered publication career includes Commonweal, Diagram, Dissent, New York magazine, North American Review, The Realist, Slow Trains, Timber Creek Review, Washington Post Book World, and Washington Post Magazine. His work has appeared in periodicals published in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, India, and Thailand, and has been praised by the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and other wonderful people.
He is the author of the novel, The 7th Effect.
This story was originally published in 2009 by Clockwise Cat.