LETTER TO A STRANGER: A TRAIN, CALIFORNIA
BY HEATHER WILSON
You were the one who got me thinking about maps again.
We were both taking the train from LA to Oakland: twelve hours of cramped, unchosen companionship. I, a baby-faced kid wearing two sweaters to keep warm in that over air-conditioned vessel; you, a man faded at the edges, your liver-spotted scalp hardly concealed beneath a dozen white strands of hair. Whether it was the frame of your bones that held you up, or the starch of your suit, I didn’t know; you seemed so frail to me. You asked how old I was, worried that I was traveling alone. I laughed it off, and assured you that I was all of twenty-one years. How old are you? I asked playfully. “Guess,” you said, and when I guessed 80: “close enough.” Then you turned to the window and said, “What I would give to be twenty-one again.”
Later, when dry hills replaced graphite sprawl, you reached into your suitcase (an old fashioned latch-up box you’d bought for “a steal”) and pulled out a fragment of a map: a threadbare, coffee-stained thing that had been creased and re-creased a thousand times. You showed me where you had come from and where you were going, running one warped finger across warped paper as if you could feel the compressed terrain. And then you folded up the California fragment and pulled out another map, a quarter of the world containing North America and some of Europe. In blue pen, you’d traced your route to Ireland, an open sided triangle from San Diego to Chicago to Dublin. You could not find Australia in your bag: that fragment must have been lost. But you did find a Sydney postcard, marked on the back by a brief, untelling greeting.
When I was ten, I bought a map. Just like your latch-up box, I found it at a yard sale for a dollar: all fifty states rolled up tight and bound by a cracked rubber band. That night I taped it above my bed, an innocent window to elsewhere. I kneeled on pillows while my mom drew lines through the states I’d traveled, drew a star on Buffalo where’d I’d been born, a star on Laredo where’d we lived afterward, a star on Fort Smith, the only home I could remember. That map, too, compressed a thousand lives into colored puzzle pieces. Mom told bony little stories, and I scraped what I could from them. She said, “In Buffalo the snow went up past the windows, and we had to shovel our way out.” She said, “Philadelphia—I took the bus there from Jersey Shore to see the bell.” She said, “In Laredo, we lived in a trailer on the border. No heat—we insulated the walls with newspaper when it got cold.” She said, “That’s the Gulf of Mexico. On the beach we looked for seashells to make necklaces.” I tried to build a past from sentences, tried to coax maps into memories; alchemy.
You folded your maps back up, tucked them into leather zip-up compartments—then got quiet for a while. The postcard was untelling, the maps were untelling, and you were untelling: I asked you about Ireland and Australia and San Diego, but all you said of them was, “Good,” leaving story unexcavated.
I wondered about you. I still do. I think of how, as a child, if I tossed too much in my sleep, the masking tape on the map came unhinged and I would wake up with it for a blanket: Florida on my thigh, New Hampshire pressed against my open mouth, the plains of the Southwest observing the divot of my belly. Sometimes, still groggy with sleep, I’d press the map back into two dimensions, layer on tape, double check the edges. And sometimes I’d just lay there for awhile, feeling like the ink on the map could leak into me, make me a living carbon copy. It was just alchemy, though. I knew it was alchemy; impossible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heather Wilson is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina’s creative writing program, and was a frequent contributor to the campus’s literary magazines Should Does and Cellar Door. In college she performed in an improv and sketch troupe, The False Profits. She now lives in Durham, North Carolina.