Draw a map. Along the far west side, draw Highway 12, stretching from top to bottom, like a divider on the paper indicating two columns: one “this,” one “that.” Two sections, but not equal. Now, a third of the way up that line – on the west side, the skinny, undernourished side – draw a little star. Put a tight, suffocating circle around the star, like how state capitals are noted on maps. This is not a capital, but it should be noted as thus. This star, five points contained by a circle on the west side of Highway 12 – this is where Manny died.
Now, at the midpoint, intersect Highway 12 with a diagonal line – not forty-five degrees exactly, but maybe more like fifteen – listing up and to the east until it runs right off the page, no specific ending to it, just a stretch of line that really could go on indefinitely, rising and rising and rising until it reaches unimaginable heights. Infinite heights, even. A line that is undoubtedly captured, its story continued, on other maps – other maps that would exist to the right of this one, and above this one, if you were to puzzle them all together. That’s Highway 6. “Ridge Highway,” the people in town call it, because it’s a narrow two-lane with steep ditches on each side – they materialize right in front of Bates’ Farm – that’s a bitch to navigate in the winter. It is also the road that eventually takes you right up and out of town.
Bates’ Farm: travel five-sixths of the way to the map’s east edge along Highway 6 and place a dot above the line. A big dot – Bates’ Farm is colossal.
Across Highway 6 from Bates’ Farm, place a small dot no bigger than a needle prick. This was Manny’s house. This is where Manny, on his last day, woke up before it was light, kissed his wife’s forehead and pulled on one of his three dark blue button-down shirts with “Bates’ Farm” appliqued on the pocket. This is where Manny quietly walked into the only other bedroom, kissed the figure nestled under a pastel Strawberry Shortcake comforter and whispered, “mija.” This is where Manny had his coffee and two slices of toast with Smucker’s orange marmalade by the glow of the dim bulb above the kitchen sink.
This is also the house Phil Bates built and lived in with his wife Lydia before he began investing in futures and was able to fund the megafarm across Highway 6. It is the house Lydia stayed in when Phil moved across the highway to the new property, the house in which Lydia harbored divorce papers for four months before presenting them to Phil, the house to which Manny was summoned two years later to repair a window leak in the family room and left with Lydia on his arm for a steak at the Bo-Dek Diner. It is the house into which Manny moved with Lydia, the house that is still owned by Phil Bates and was rented out to Lydia and Manny in exchange for a small monthly sum and Manny’s full-time handyman services at Bates’ Farm. It is in need of paint. No need to note that on the map.
Inset map of living room: Eleven feet directly inside the front door was a 70-inch flat screen Sony. Note this with a thin, elongated rectangle. The television was a birthday present from Phil Bates for his ex-wife Lydia, which was mounted by Manny at Phil’s behest. The 66-inch stretch of wall between the kitchen doorway and the bathroom doorway did not adequately accommodate the television, which therefore hung its leftover heft into the kitchen doorway where it hit Manny’s hip as often as not when he passed through. Hence the presence of “old bruising” on his right hip per the informal observation of the county medical examiner.
Draw a line from the pinprick of Manny’s home to the colossal dot of Bates’ Farm. A light line, a hesitant line, a worn and spent line begging for erasure. This line marks the path Manny trod to Phil Bates’ corporate farm the morning of his death. Manny departed in earliest dawn, the smell of bacon issuing from the next house over and swirling with the chill of spring dew. He walked out onto the cracked cement step and traversed the dusty driveway, pebbles crunching underfoot and stirring the stillness. He passed the tractor parked on the trailer, both of which he had borrowed from Phil Bates the day before, and dragged a finger through the dew along the tractor’s back fender as he passed. He reached the mailbox where he and Lydia collected their mail – “Bates,” it intoned in faded black paint – and walked across the highway and one block west to the Bates’ Farm service driveway. He passed under and was swallowed whole by the wrought iron arch – “Bates Farm,” it read – and ducked his head as he entered.
West of Bates’ Farm, but toward the right edge of the map nonetheless, Town Street T’s southward from Highway 6, ramrod-straight up and down. It stops about two-thirds of the way down the map, takes a 90-degree turn to the east, and becomes Town Business Street. This curves up and to the right like a spiking exponential graph of homes in foreclosure over time along that same street, until it reconnects with Highway 6 on the east side of Bates’ Farm, hugging the side of the map like a needle about to roll off the edge. It’s a loop – beginning and ending at Bates’ Farm, trapping Manny’s home in its spiny arms.
Indicate Apex Bank with a small square at the right angle where Town Street becomes Town Business Street, on the underside. On the day of his death, Manny left Bates’ Farm after only four hours of work in order to drive Lydia to the bank for her 10:30-4:30 shift at the teller window. Her twelve-year-old Ford Taurus was parked two blocks north on Town Street at Jake’s Auto, where it sat in the front lot – the only lot – in one of the four parking spots. The dent on the front bumper of her car was attributed to the tree she hit at the curve on Town Business Street the week before while uncharacteristically inebriated. The tree can be marked with a triangle. The bar at which she became inebriated was one building to the right of the bank on Town Business Street. This can be marked with a drawing of a small mug of beer absent of suds – their draught beer is consistently and unexplainably flat.
Inset map of bar: Draw a long rectangle representing the bar with two small circles near one end. Mark one circle with an X. This X represents Lydia in her barstool the week before Manny’s death, mere hours before she hit the tree with her Ford Taurus, and in the minutes during which she became inebriated. The circle without the X represents the stool where Manny was not sitting, despite a text exchange earlier in the day to the effect of meeting for happy hour to celebrate Lydia’s potential job promotion and interview earlier that morning. Her promotion to Banking Officer at Apex Bank’s flagship location would put her way beyond the edges of our map, up and out on Highway 6, but the commute would be manageable in her reliable Taurus, a leftover from her marriage to Phil.
After sitting next to the circle without the X for thirty minutes, Lydia initiated the following text exchange:
>Lydia: Where r u?
>Manny: Sorry – washing phil’s siding like fucking Cinderella (The latter was an unusual but not surprising simile, as Manny had watched “Cinderella” four times with his daughter Daniela over the past two weeks, and had recently crafted a wooden wand with a golden, glittered star attached to the end for Daniela’s sixth birthday.)
>Manny: This is bullshit. Leaving now.
>Lydia: Do u think it would be ok?
>Manny: I’m coming
>Lydia: You sure?
>Manny: Putting my tools away now.
>Lydia: Might not be a good idea…?
>Lydia: Just thinking maybe u don’t want to bite the hand that feeds u? us?
>Lydia: feels weird to drink alone tho.
>Lydia: R u going to come when u r done?
>Lydia: Going to order another drink.
>Lydia: Bartender gave me “Crown Royale.” Fancy schmancy.
>Lydia: Wow, good stuff
>Lydia: R u mad?
>Lydia: Ordering another
>Lydia: U there?
Where Highway 6 runs off of the map to the east, draw an arrow to indicate “OFF THE MAP” and then a small square with a triangle atop it, signifying a school. This is Gaines-Oakwood-Norris Elementary, where Lydia and Manny sent six-year-old Daniela via bus Mondays through Fridays. It is also where Manny led a reading group of kindergartners on those Thursday mornings when he was able to take a 45-minute leave from his place of employment, per the occasional approval of Phil Bates. The morning of the day of his death was a Thursday. After working four hours and then transporting Lydia to the bank, Manny drove to the school and sat on a rug with a map of the world stitched onto it in a circle formation. On this rug, he read Stone Soup to twelve six-year-olds. He lingered eight minutes beyond his scheduled time in the circle of countries and children and unwittingly deposited his final smile there in the company of his daughter, who sat at his right elbow.
Inset map of Daniela’s fingernails: But for the recently-chewed-up edges, they are painted “Princess Pink” and sprinkled with nail glitter, both the nail polish and glitter having been applied two days earlier per the following exchange:
Manny: Hold the rake like this, mija. You’ll get a better angle, you know?
Daniela: It hurts my finger.
Manny: Which finger, baby?
Daniela: This one.
Manny: Well of course it hurts. You’ve bitten it down past the nail. See that? That means you tore the skin there.
Daniela: Probably I need a Band-Aid.
Manny: Probably you also need to stop biting your nails, mija.
Manny: What if Mommy paints your fingernails real pretty? Then would you stop?
Daniela: Real nail polish?
Manny: Real nail polish.
Daniela: Could it be my own? Like, I would keep it?
Manny: No, you can borrow some of Mommy’s.
Daniela: Okay, but you. I want you to paint them.
Manny: Ah –
Daniela: Please? Please?
Manny: Well –
Daniela: Stop laughing! For real. You do it.
Manny: If I can paint Mr. Bates’ barn, I can paint a fingernail, right, mija? Okay. I’ll do it. But you have to stop chewing your nails then, you know? You shouldn’t hurt yourself.
Just south of the needle-prick dot that is Manny’s home, draw a small square. This represents the twenty-foot-high deer blind that darkened Manny and Lydia’s backyard. It was erected by Phil Bates when he resided in the home and remained on the property per Phil’s directive. The blind sat forty-six feet off the southern side of the house, its position shadowing Manny’s and Lydia’s bedroom window in the early spring and late fall at mid-day. Small, squat, square openings were cut out of each wall of the blind. The gray, brittle boards and protruding nails made it both dysfunctional and unavoidably present from the kitchen window; hence, Manny’s regular references to “that damn blind.” The ladder was removed by Manny and stored under the deck steps to dissuade Daniela from an unsafe interest in the structure, which she had recently begun to refer to, in her fairy tale fascination, as “Mr. Bates’ castle.”
On the day of his death after he arrived home from Gaines-Oakwood-Norris Elementary School, Manny unloaded the tractor from the trailer and approached the blind, leaving deep-rutted tread marks in the spotty grass. A dent in the leg of the blind that was discovered after Manny’s death indicates pressure was applied to the blind which did not compromise the strength or solidity of the towering structure. It neither leaned nor fell, and the tractor was returned to its place on the trailer and then attached to the back of the pick-up in anticipation of the purpose for which it was borrowed.
It was later voiced by Lydia that the attempt to nudge the blind into an accidental topple was likely an effort to remove it without confrontation, per Manny’s frequently-voiced plan to move his mother’s trailer to their backyard where she could more easily be monitored and attended.
Over, over, over to the left – on the west side of Highway 12, near the bottom of the map, draw a small rectangle. This is Manny’s mother’s trailer. Passersby will recognize it because she once painted her name along the length of it, fronting the highway: “Olivia Maria Valdez Consuelos Pryzowski Stark.” She has clutched at the last names of each of her three husbands and updated her legal documents with each addition. She is a regular at the county courthouse eight miles east/northeast on Highway 6, partly due to the pile of paperwork necessitated by name changes, partly due to her heroin addiction and regular appearances before the judge for disorderly conduct resulting from said heroin addiction. She weighs 94 pounds.
Inset map of Olivia’s kitchen: Draw a circle representing the two-person table near the front door of the trailer. Underneath this table is where, upon an unannounced delivery of eggs and bread, Manny and Daniela found Olivia the night before Manny’s death in a smack-induced haze that made her more partial to small spaces. Her elbows and knees were bruised from the pressure of the linoleum floor on her old bones and she was shaking from the absence of blanket or pillow. Manny attempted to insulate her with the warmth of the lumpy blanket from her bed (the only one he could find in her sparse trailer) and two bath towels (both in desperate need of washing) and asked her again and again as he and Daniela crafted her nest, “Where is your car, Mamá? It’s not out front. Mamá, where is your car?” Olivia, for her part, lay under the table, its unfinished underside like a big, hovering moon above her, and mumbled, “I wish that I’d stand at a big ship’s stern / to see the dark waves pass” over and over in garbled tune. Daniela retreated to the trailer’s screen door and waited for Manny, her dark eyes round, one Princess Pink fingernail being worked between her baby teeth. Manny finished tucking the blanket and towel around his Mamá, rested back on the heels of his work boots and sat for a long time, his forehead resting on the table’s edge, until his Mamá’s singing subsided and she entered a twitchy slumber.
Just north of the rectangle of Olivia’s house, draw a small squiggly line signifying a creek veering to the west; at the end of the small squiggly line, draw a circle signifying a pond. If it has been drawn correctly, the pond and accompanying creek should resemble a balloon on a string like a child would happily clutch in her hand before she understands and fears how a needle can pierce a balloon, making it dangerous to hold things of value aloft. The pond is where Olivia Maria Valdez Consuelos Pryzowski Stark’s car was, at that time, mired in algae and sludge resulting from confusion about the precise location of her driveway two nights prior. The car’s nose was buried underwater like a dog thirstily drinking from a bowl. The tail end of the car stuck in the air, unashamedly flaunting her undercarriage to anyone standing in the North Woods.
To the west of the pond, draw three triangles. This is the North Woods.
Two hairs north of the star held tightly in the circle along Highway 12, draw a slash. Or a smudge. Something unintentional, something accidental. Something disrupting the perfect order of Highway 12 and how it effortlessly divides things in two. This is where Manny swerved on the black tar on his way to extract his mother’s car from the pond the morning of his death, having hitched Phil Bates’ tractor and trailer on to the back of his boxy, rusted Ford pick-up. It is generally assumed that he swerved for no reason other than that everyone swerves on occasion when they are driving, perhaps to go around a pothole or to avoid a turtle or—or—to dip a toe for even a moment in the possibilities that exist on the other side of those yellow lines that stack up one after another – line line line line line line line – until they seem like one long blur of line, impenetrable and hypnotic in their constancy, their division, their permanence. Those lines that tell a man where he ought to stay put, those lines that confine a man, resign a man to a cruise control that is no control at all. So maybe just for a second a man wonders, a man considers, a man becomes unhinged at the possibility of what it would be like to grip the road on the other side of the lines, his own tires beneath him and his own decisions his only compass and his own family’s name on the mailbox at the end of his own driveway. His own wife.
That is to say, the swerve itself was nothing unlike what many a driver has experienced. (So read the police report following the negative posthumous blood alcohol test.)
The swerve gave the tractor-trailer combo he was towing too much power, too much sway, over Manny’s tired pick-up. Phil Bates’ machinery overtook him, tipping sideways into the ditch and pulling Manny’s pick-up with it “like it was nothing more than a yo-yo at the end of its string,” per the deputy officer’s casual analysis to the EMT who arrived on the scene. Manny’s head hit the steering wheel as the truck hit the ditch sideways at fifty-odd miles per hour. The truck must have been like a bunny jumping into the weeds – there and then gone, out of sight, as if it had never quite been there at all. The milkweed and ragweed and thistles adapted to the new landscape, silencing and stilling themselves after the upset, the blackbirds from the low field just yonder pausing only a moment before resuming their conk-la-ree call. The air was stirred, tinged with curiosity, but that too died down soon enough. Then there was nothing more – just the final spillage of a man’s thoughts and stored-up nettles and dusty disappointments as they dissolved into nothingness.
Now move north on Highway 12, east on Highway 6, and south on Town Street to the square representing Apex Bank.
Inset map of Apex Bank lobby: Here, draw an “S.” It was short of an hour after Manny died and twelve minutes after he and his vehicle were discovered by a passerby. Lydia and her co-worker Deb were celebrating the minutes-old announcement of Lydia’s promotion with a handful of Skittles from the twenty-five cent vending machine in the Apex Bank vestibule when the phone rang. In a rare display of whimsy, Lydia winked at Deb as she answered the phone, “Apex Bank, this is your soon-to-be personal banker Lydia speaking.”
Manny’s death traveled through the lines of the map like the drip in his mamá’s arm. Lydia listened for a moment, her face twisting as an incongruous choking gurgle rose from her throat. Her Skittles fell from her right palm and pinged across the industrial vinyl tile like the titter of static.
Ninety-four minutes after Manny died, the school (OFF THE MAP) was undergoing a state-mandated tornado drill and the phone at the front desk was left untended by Mrs. Jackson, ringing and ringing, the sound of Lydia’s call first lost in the drone of the tornado alarm, and then after that ricocheting from wall to wall in the stillness of the just-abandoned office. Mrs. Jackson was in the library crouched in the fetal position with her hands clasped around the back of her neck, demonstrating to the kindergartners – including young Daniela – the proper position for protecting oneself from the shitstorm that can result when a tornado fixes its eye on you. Simply clasp your hands.
She spoke not from experience – she’d never encountered a tornado in all her forty-six years – but from the County Safety Council training she received under the aegis of County Safety Council Chairperson Phillip M. Bates.
Nearly done, now. Move your pencil to the tiny needle prick that is Manny’s house and draw a small dot. Smaller. There, that is Daniela in her bedroom on the night of her daddy’s death.
Inset map of Daniela: Obtain a fine-tipped pencil – something wholly erasable – and draw her face. Draw her body crouched in proper tornado defense position, her knees pulled up tight under the Cinderella nightgown Manny had picked up for her at the Goodwill two towns over. Her head is lifted slightly, eyes looking backward toward the star in the circle. Give her lightly feathered bangs – her mother styled them for her before school – and a swirl of confusion and distress on her Latina-European features. Shade her face lightly on the left with a network of lines, like a shadow just beginning to sweep across her from west to east. Draw her hands clamped behind her neck tightly, Princess Pink fingernails bitten to the quick, small brown knuckles whitening in self-protection.
There. Now above Highway 6 and above Bates’ Farm, to the right of Highway 12, in that elusive no-man’s-land where there is nothing defined, nothing drawn in, no legend or direction – right there, title your map.
Elizabeth Caswell lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three children. She is the assistant editor for creative nonfiction at Water~Stone Review and has an MFA degree from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN.
To stay up-to-date with Elizabeth, be sure to follow her on Twitter @liz_caswell.