Last (and the first?) time I posted here in OTC, I felt I had an actually decent bit of writing to share. It's the same this time I guess, if you thought my last was okay you might like this; it's a sort of "meditation" in the same way that one was, with a similar theme. This spiraled out from the daily writing prompt "you are left a map in the will of someone you don't know" which I thought was pretty generic and edgy.
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I knew Tom Schwarkoff the way one knows a President or an actor, through the mask they put on and only by a degree or two of separation. I didn’t know know him. But saying that I’d simply heard of him wasn’t right either. He was the protagonist in several narratives spun towards me from folks in town, and I’d seen him along the street the way you do with any old stranger. I can say with confidence he did not know me, and certainly didn’t know know me.
Why I got the map from the will is beyond me.
I had stopped by the funeral for a little while out of respect. It’s a small town, always will be. I got the call a couple of days later from some out-of-town court official who seemed just as confused as I was. She couldn’t tell me what the rest of the will was, but I would assume everything else went to family. The funeral proved he had one. I didn’t even know it was a map at first, just some cardboard tube with my symbolic name on it. I was apprehensive when I got it. Tom was known for his jokes and escapades, of all kinds. I couldn’t help but wonder if he might go a little too far when he was far enough himself he couldn’t get punished for it. A deadly snake passed on to some name picked from the phonebook? A last-call anthrax mail attack? I had no idea what to expect. Unfurling a tattered yellow bit of parchment was just as surprising as anything else.
What was even more puzzling was that, after a little squinting at the faded ink, it wasn’t urging me on a globe-spanning trek for a buried relic. In fact it didn’t even seem to take me anywhere outside of town, for the most part. I left the thing open on the kitchen table, refusing to move it after I’d set it down. It had a power over me. I ate on the floor, or in another room. Anything to avoid disturbing the map that led nowhere I hadn’t been before. The little marks along the dotted trail belonged to places I knew. The map offered nothing, and everything. It promised significance where I could not possibly see any.
And so one day, when I finally found the spare time and the courage, I approached the thing again, armed with a pad and pencil, and took down the locations, in the order they appeared from what seemed to me to be the starting point. On the one hand, carrying such a thing out on a dangerous, or familiar, journey, unsure of what laid ahead, sounded appropriate. On the other, I couldn’t bear to bring the gift from a dead stranger out in the wind, dust, and heat. I couldn’t budge my Excalibur.
I set out on foot, carrying nothing but the sheet of paper folded in my pocket, and a half-filled and half-crushed bottle of water. I barely needed the list of places. I knew town. I knew home. One place led to another naturally. I was in no hurry, though. I stopped at each. Staring at the facade of each building as the wind licked at my hair and the sun razed my eyes. I tried to make sense of the order, the names, anything. It was hardly a point to say these may have been places he frequented. He lived here. Of course he knew these places, too. I never went in anywhere, it somehow just didn’t make sense. Didn’t feel right for what I was doing. I was supposed to look at these places like I was a traveler discovering a new land, wasn’t I? He knew I lived here, and yet he made it up as a map instead of the unceremonious method I’d used to recreate his work. Mysterious strangers aren’t welcome in places right away. The part I was playing, the degree of separation I was forcing on myself, like Tom had always had me at a disadvantage with, didn’t allow entrance. I’m not sure whether that made things more or less confusing.
When I got to the last location I must say I was a little frustrated. It was just a tree, on the edge of town. It was a very nice tree, at least. One everyone knew about because of how big it was. People held little gatherings under its branches. It was not unusual to pass by a couple of cars parked under it, their drivers leaning against them with beer in hand. If you lived here, it was The Tree. Obviously I knew this was coming. I read the map. I made the list. It seemed just about the most trite way to end a walk through town. I thought something would have made sense along the walk that would have countered that notion. Nothing.
I stared at the tree, thrashing in the wind, until my eyes watered from the dust and sun. And I thought about Tom, and the gregarious smile the old man wore, walking down the street, looking at no one and nothing in particular. The way people’s eyes lit up when they told a story about him, like he was Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan. Some figure whose tale everyone knew already, but whose magic was in the telling alone. You could figure out a Tom exploit, even one you’d never heard before, by the first couple sentences. And you relished every word along the way. You’d think the man was a war hero from the way people talked about him, and all he ever did was have a little fun along the backroads of his life.
My favorite was the one about the snake and the raccoon. Tom lived a little outside of town, in a quiet little neighborhood of older folks. Mostly women. One morning he got a call from a neighbor. She’d been having trouble with a raccoon that kept coming into her yard, harassing her cat. No matter what she tried, she couldn’t get rid of the thing. Broom handle. Sharp tone of voice. Some cat treats flung as hard as she could muster. Nothing worked. And now it was back again, and today it had scratched her poor old cat. Just after Tom hung up, saying he’d be glad to come over and take a look, he got another call, from a woman further down the other side of the street. She was a little worked up. Just a few minutes ago, she’d stepped out into her garage and was greeted with a loud hiss, which she soon matched with the large reptile gliding across the concrete towards her. She didn’t know what to do.
Tom asked her to just reach her arm out her door real quick, and press the button to open the garage. That’s all.
This is the part everyone loves, where Tom marches down the street at 7:00 in the morning in his bathrobe and slippers and promptly into the first lucky caller’s backyard. No one ever locked their gates out there. And then he marches right up to the raccoon, and just grabs it off the ground like it’s a misbehaving dog. Holds it tight to him as it writhes around. Nods to the woman and the poor old cat she’s clutching. And then he marches right back out, down the other way, past his own house again, up our second lucky caller’s driveway. The snake is out in the sun now, and it’s maybe five or six feet long. Certainly not garden variety.
Tom just throws the raccoon at it. Not too hard, mind you. He knows animals can handle a little toss. They can land on their feet. And as soon as that thing does, it and the snake go at each other. You’d think they were a couple. They slash and hiss and snap and get all tangled up. For a moment there it looks like the raccoon’s got a really long tail. If this were a Looney Tunes bit, now is the part where they go up in a cloud of smoke while limbs and little stars come out at regular intervals.
And just as fast as it started, it’s over. Snake makes a beeline for the bushes, raccoon darts up the road and out of the neighborhood. Tom marches back to his house, grabs the newspaper he missed on his way out, and sits back down with his coffee before the clock says 7:05. Neither combatant ever appeared on that street again.
I stood there, rooted to my spot in front of the tree, trying to figure out what this meant. I turned things over in my mind in every way possible. I couldn’t find a connection between each location. The names of the stores didn’t each contribute their first letter to some obscene word. It was just some places everyone in town went to. Some quiet spots. Some nice things to look at. But nothing that stood out to anyone who lived here already, like me.
Finally a particularly bad bout of dust kicked up and found its way to my eyes, and when blinking like my life depended on it, and then rubbing them with my hands didn’t work, I decided that was as good a time as any to head home. Another volley of sand found its way down my throat and as I hacked and my eyes ran I reached into my pocket, balled up the list and threw it into the wind. It slapped against my face before disappearing somewhere behind me.
As soon as I got back I put my head under the kitchen faucet, swallowing gulps of cold water and letting it run into all the crevices of my face. When I’d had my fill I wanted to let the water drip off me, fed up, but then realized I needed another look at the map. So I dried off and then sat down at the kitchen table. I pored over every detail. I looked for faint writing I’d missed. A certain pattern to the letters, or the shape of the line drawn through town. The style of the marks at each location. Nothing. Was this the final joke, the final grand scheme? That there was nothing? That he’d gotten me to waste my time entirely because of his reputation alone? It wasn’t very funny. There had to be something here. The gnarled old thing taunted me. I wanted to crumple it like my knockoff version, but I knew I could never bring myself to do that.
I let out a long-held breath and then slowly brought my hands to the paper, the way I might try to handle a raccoon. I had no idea what Tom’s laugh sounded like but I felt like it was ringing in the back of my skull. I finally grabbed the thing, and as a last-ditch effort held it up to the light from the window, as if he had somehow put a watermark into it. And while that was not the case, my efforts did prove to be very… illuminating.
Brow furrowed, I gingerly turned the map over, revealing fully the words written on the back that I had glimpsed, in a faint, spidery hand. I set the paper back down this way. The words were barely legible, it seemed the pen had barely been pressed at all. That was no excuse, really. Somehow in my own obsession with understanding why I was so important to this machination, I hadn’t even seen the words on the back while unfolding the thing in the first place. I could just barely make out, after a few trials:
“You who have heard me in the eyes of others will walk in my steps, and know what has been lost to presumption.”
I stood up almost immediately after feeling certain in what words I’d read, and walked away. Again the map was left as it was for many days. It still taunted me whenever I passed through the kitchen. Before it had dared me to find an answer. Now it dared me to comprehend the one it had so graciously handed me. The words turned over in my mind constantly. I laid awake at night, wondering what cosmic secrets were just beyond my grasp. One day I even walked the path laid out on the map a second time, now ingrained in my skull, wondering if I was supposed to have read the words before I started.
Finally I rolled the thing back up and put it back in its tube and shoved it away in a closet. I felt like the protagonist of some Gothic novel. I had to stop this before I was driven mad by some arcane force. I tried not to think about it. I watched TV, I devoured books. I spent time under The Tree with friends, to whom I never spoke a word of my plight.
And then one night, when I was sitting in the lonely diner along the edge of town, no longer caring that it was one of Tom’s prescribed destinations, I drifted into the conversation happening at the booth behind mine. I dangled on words half-heard over the cacophony of pots and pans and plates clinking against tables, phrases pitted against the intoxicating smell of the soup waiting on the placemat in front of me, and the only sentence I heard fully was “I just realized, I’ve been looking around this whole time because I felt someone was missing. It was Tom,” and then the two of them laughed lightly and moved on from the interjection as everything fell into place.
I ate quickly as if I were possessed, paid and tipped absentmindedly, Barely answered the waitress asking if I felt alright, and then headed out into the cool night air.
In a way I had been right in my initial assessment. The joke was that there was no joke. The significance was that everything about the map and its destinations was utterly insignificant. I had been seeking to understand some missing facet of Tom as a central figure, a protagonist. His simplicity had soared ridiculously far over my head.
I was picked from the phonebook, essentially. And Tom may as well have scribbled all over the map indiscriminately. What he needed me to understand was that everyone slots into the corner of a diner, set dressing for someone else’s evening. That sometimes the most important things in a person’s life are shared, things understood by anyone else at a glance. No one really is a titan or a force of nature. Uniqueness does not correlate to significance, nor the ordinary to meaningless flotsam and jetsam passing through our existence without a second thought. He wanted to remind me that distinct things are only recognized because of the indistinct.
That no matter how we seem to anyone else, we all live our own lives in the silent little dark spot between lightning and thunder.