2nd Place Winner in Creative Writing Institute’s 2014 Short Story Contest
“I have a list and a map. What could possibly go wrong?” she said, crushing and balling up the map that I had meticulously drawn, dropping it in the waste bin as she spoke.
“I knew you would do that.”
“What?” she said, looking at her empty hands. “Oh, yes, well, I don’t do maps, you know that. The list is all I need.”
When I give my wife directions, they are meaningless until she’s converted them into her own notation. Telling her to “take the third turn on the right and go left at the fork in the road” becomes “turn this way at the fire hydrant where the shifty-looking pitbull sniffs, and that way at the obese tree with the sad leaves”—where “this” is the hand she writes with and “that” is the other one, but not always. She has tried to explain to me the conditions under which this and that reverse their meanings, but I’m still not sure whether it’s due to phases of the moon, quantum physics, particle spin, or feminine logic, which, as all men know, is diametrically opposed to male logic.
Her list will be peppered with references to places where she has seen three-legged cats, vandalized mail boxes, broken swing sets, smiling seniors oscillating on antique rockers, sulky adolescents sprawled on decrepit cars, bawling infants frazzling new mothers, and indulgent grandparents smiling benignly at tantrumming toddlers. This is not social commentary; these are the landmarks by which she makes sense of her environment and manages to navigate her way around it.
Watching the face of a stranger to whom my wife is giving directions is one of the purest forms of joy in my life. As she peppers the bemused person with allusions to bizarre landmarks, her hands shoot out and back—right for a this, left for a that—in a hyperactive mime show, whilst behind her back, they see me doubled up, cackling with insane laughter.
With list in hand, she breezily sets off for the IKEA store in the neighborhood we have only recently moved to. She loves IKEA. The IKEA catalog is her favorite reading, bar none. IKEA is another subject over which my wife and I are diametrically opposed, although I do like their meatballs, but she doesn’t, which nicely preserves the asymmetry of our relationship.
“I’ll make sure I’m near the phone,” I said as she went out the door.
“No need,” she said, and is gone, with an uncanny and totally groundless confidence that she will get to her destination unaided. I retrieved the map from the litter bin and smoothed it out. She really did screw up the paper with a vengeance, and it now resembled an ancient parchment or a salt-cured pirate’s treasure map, which was fitting, given her adoration of the Swedish palace of goodies for which she was headed. I gave her five minutes, but it was only three before the phone rang.
“It’s me,” she announced, unnecessarily.
“I know. Are you lost already?”
“Of course not. But when I turned this way at the corner where the man mows his lawn, I came to a dead end.”
“What man? What lawn? What dead end?”
“Are you going to be awkward? You know. The man who’s always mowing his lawn,” she said, her tone of voice implying that she’s talking to a half-wit.
“I knew you were going to be awkward. Well, alright, not always always, but very often.”
“Is it Rushwood Close you’re on?”
“How on earth do I know? Oh, wait a minute, I’m reversing back to the junction. Yes, there’s a sign coming up. Yes, Rushwood Close. So?”
“Isn’t that some sort of clue?” I ask.
“Clue? What do you mean? Don’t be obtuse.”
“Closes close. They end. They are dead ends.”
“Oh, that explains it.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Not you. It’s another man mowing his lawn. Hasn’t he got anything better to do!”
“You need to take the next turn after Rushwood. It’s Calypso Drive. Then you take a right on …” She’d already hung up. But only for another three minutes.
“I know. Don’t tell me, the man wasn’t mowing his lawn on Calypso Drive so you didn’t turn there.”
“Actually, Mr. Clever Clogs, Calypso Drive doesn’t exist. The next road is Walsham Avenue.”
I look at the map. “When you pulled out of Rushwood, which way did you turn?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I turned this way going in to Rushwood, so I turned that way going out to correct my error. That’s why.” My wife has the belief that you can correct most errors by doing the opposite of what you did to cause the error. For example, eating more makes you fat, eating less makes you thin; spending money makes you happy, saving money makes you miserable, etc.
“But now you’re heading in the wrong direction. Turn around, then turn that way out of Walsham, then turn this way onto the road after Rushwood, which will be Calypso.”
“It better be!” she growled and hung up. Then followed an eerily long silence of ten minutes or so. I started to worry. A great deal of painful experience has taught me that the chances of her having an eventless ten minutes navigating new territory were slim. Did she have an accident? Been carjacked? Got caught by the police for angrily speeding the wrong way on a busy freeway, yelling curses at me and the city planners at the top of her voice? But life is full of surprises, and some of them are even pleasant, because when she calls it is to announce that, “I’ve arrived.”
But there is no triumph in her voice, so I await her next utterance with trepidation, but it doesn’t come.
“And?” I say.
“Well, I’m not actually at IKEA.”
“I can see IKEA.”
“Will you stop saying ‘And?’ in that snotty tone of voice?”
I’m not sure that three innocent letters and a harmless question mark can be made to sound snotty, but it wasn’t worth discussing.
“If you’d get to the point, I wouldn’t need to say anything.”
“Well, there’s a river between me and it.”
I looked at the map I drew, but as comprehensive as it was, I didn’t think to include a river, because there wasn’t one between our house and IKEA, or even near IKEA as far as I knew. I told her to hold on while I resorted to Google maps, but I still didn’t see a river near IKEA, not even a stream.
“How big is this river?” I asked.
“Well, maybe it’s not a river, maybe it’s a riverette or something.”
“How about a ditch?”
“Alright, it’s not very big, but so what? It’s impassable, unless you want me to do some sort of automotive stunt and try to fly over it.”
“What street are you on?”
“I have no idea. Oh, wait a minute, there’s some people over there. Oi, you,” I hear her shout, “what street is this?”
I expected her to get a rude reply to match her curtly delivered question, but instead I heard her shouting, “What? Sinclair? Montclair? Winklair? Thin Air?”
“Did you get that,” she asked me.
“Those names. Are any of them on your wretched map?”
I don’t see any of them on the Google map, or anything close, which doesn’t surprise me.
“This may sound like a strange question, but where is the sun relative to IKEA?” I asked.
“It’s in the sky relative to IKEA. Where is your brain relative to solving this problem? Have you started drinking already?”
I haven’t, but I soon will. “If you tell me where the sun is, I can work out where you are relative to IKEA; north, east, south or west, which will give me some idea where you are, which may …”
“Alright, alright, I get it. Let’s see. Okay Einstein, the sun is behind me and IKEA is in front of me.”
“Um, well it’s around noon, so the sun is in the south, which means that IKEA is north of you, so …” I looked at the map. “You can’t be south of IKEA. There’s an eight lane freeway on that side.”
“Well I know that!” she barked, impatiently.
“Why didn’t you tell me? And what are you doing stopped on a freeway? That’s dangerous.”
“I’m not ON a freeway, I’m UNDER a freeway.”
“Why is there a road under a freeway,” I ask, genuinely puzzled.
“If it amuses you, we could have an interesting discussion as to why they should build a road under a freeway, or a freeway over a road. But will that get me any closer to IKEA, or should I just dump the car, wade through the stream, and hike over there?”
“Don’t leave the car, it could be a dangerous area.”
“I can look after myself.”
“I know that. I’m worried about the car.”
She replied in somewhat unladylike language.
“Look, just drive until you see a street sign, then I’ll know where you are.”
“Right,” she said, and I heard the sound of the starter motor, which went on, and on, and on, getting weaker and weaker and weaker. And stopped.
“The car won’t start,” we said in unison.
“Call Triple A,” I said. “The card is in the glove box.”
“But how can I tell them where … Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Hello?”
I hung up, put the phone ringer on mute, made myself a sandwich, opened a bottle of beer, and went to sit in the garden. She would work it out. She always does, and she’ll get to IKEA—the gravitational pull of the place on her is simply too strong to resist—and she’ll buy a load of stuff we don’t need and bring it home, map or no map, list or no list.
See 1st and 3rd place winner stories here:
1st place winner: The Devil and Mrs. Morgan by Marsha Porter: https://deborahowen.wordpress.com/the-devil-and-mrs-morgan-by-marsha-porter-1st-prize-winner/
3rd place winner: Reading the Leaves by Gargi Mehra: https://deborahowen.wordpress.com/reading-the-leaves-by-gargi-mehra-3rd-place-winner/