Sunday, June 26, 2005


Because his teachers knew that he could not learn, he spent his school days staring at atlases. In third grade he lay on the floor in the back of the classroom and floated down the Ohio, from Pittsburgh, through the tiny towns lining its banks, past Cincinnati, along the divide between Ohio and Kentucky, and finally to that amazing spot where the waters poured into the Mississippi.

Those names meant nothing to him, he could not read them, but he instinctively understood the shapes of cities, the paths of roads, the rise of mountains. At first he didn't even look at pictures, just the maps, and most often one page for weeks or even months. This was assumed to be by all around him to be proof that he was at best sleeping, at worst someone with an extraordinarily low I.Q.

The kids laughed, the teachers and his parents looked at him with the expression usually reserved for injured dogs, and he knew all of that. But it did not matter. What was important was where he went. And he could travel.

He would pick something, most often rivers, but sometimes the roads or a mountain ridge, and he would move along, finding the contours that the maps expressed, and imagining the places, the scenes, the histories and the people.

From the earliest he most liked the smallest places. He could never really understand Pittsburgh. He saw it only as a crowded triangle with the mountains threatening to crush it. A mark that thick seemed unknowable. He preferred the smallest points. The tiny dots with names he could match up to the population lists with adjoining numbers like "48" or "267" or "124," and he could be in those places. He could stroll the dirt roads, or eat at the local restaurant, or, best, walk up the mile-long driveways to see his friends.

He moved from the battered old atlases of his school rooms to the World Book Encyclopedia his brothers and sisters used for homework. Pictures in the articles now merged with the map pages. He would carry a volume outside, and cross the yard to the little outcropping of stone that could hide and shelter him, and look for countries. Knowing no other way, he took the first book first and began: Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Australia. Gliding down rivers, hiking through mountains, riding through valleys. He got lost in the Sahara and rode a train across a continent before he ever got to "B."

His parents took this turn of events as proof of progress. "Nate! Nikolas is reading the encyclopedia! Now he'll do much better at school." But this elation proved short-lived. Nothing changed at school, and Nik never spoke nor wrote nor even drew pictures of anything from the worlds he passed through.

By high school he had learned to mix the maps and pictures with carefully deciphered captions and he gained more control. On spring and summer Saturday mornings he ventured out on his moped and wandered through garage sales, seeking unusual documentations of the earth's geography. The money he earned bagging groceries at the IGA went into the Atlas of European History (1922), Central Europe Today (1902), L'Indochine (in French), and a pile of thirty years' worth of maps from National Geographic. Now he went by boat the whole stretch of the Elbe in 1900, finding a momentary home in that break in the Sudeten Alps that is the "Moravian Gate." There he lingered many spring weeks in a little and very ancient city called Ursi. There he ate lunch with Austrian army officers, drank Plzn Beer with Bohemian nationalists, and fell in love with the blonde daughter of the Imperial Postmaster, whose name he knew was Kyza, and whose thin, warm body he saw and felt in his bed as he shot semen into the night.

Parents, teachers, special ed directors declared him lost. They started to push him out. He had a job, which was enough for them, enough for him. Maybe that was so. He had Kyza that season and with her he climbed the cliffs of these boundary mountains, and made love in alpine fields of wildflowers. They poured cold, white Bavarian wines into each other's mouths and laughed as the sun set behind them, sending its last sparkles into the river below. He wondered at this place. Wondered how long he might stay.

And still drifted through the Saturday yard sales, piling up choices for when it would be time to leave.

© 2004 by Ira Socol________________________________________


Paul said...

Hehe... It's The Narrator's Greatest Hits!

Today I got lost in a topo map following the Pacific Crest Trail. It must have been the hypnotic effect of the wavy elevation lines.

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