Under a lank and sunsmeared sky the man took the tattered map from his knapsack and smoothed it on the grittened flat of a boulder. Over endless months the map had been worn to practically nothing, incomprehensible in parts. Mended with yellowing scotchtape, rusted paperclips. West Virginia now read West Virgin and it always made him laugh. He knew it wasnt funny, but the world had been boached and heatraped, stripped to its meanest need. No more Patton Oswalt monologues or George Saunders shortstorys. No more catchphrases or oneliners. Only he and the boy and the road and West Virgin. Tee hee.
We cross a bridge here, he said, pointing to a beansmudge in the southern corner. It looks to be about eight miles, or two kilometers. See this green dotted line? That means it’s a scenic route.
The boy smiled. Will it be pretty, Papa?
No. Everything will be dead. But we might see an interesting corpse, he said, mussing the boy’s hair. Twisted into a neat shape in a ditch or something. Or maybe even hung from a branch with its legs eaten off.
Oh boy. That sounds like fun.
Now this is the river, he said, indicating a random mapcrease. We follow the road here along the eastern slope of the mountains. These are our roads, the black lines here. See these roads? The boy seemed confused. What’s the matter, the man said.
I thought it was singular. You know. “The Road.”
The man’s eyes went wide. Where did you get those?
The quotation marks.
The boy looked at his feet. Ive. Ive been saving them, Papa.
Well you can’t just use them like that. He took the boy’s face in his hands, more roughly than intended. Everything is precious. Everything. Do you understand?
The boy looked a little bit frightened. Yes Papa. I wont ever use them again. I promise.
The man turned back to the map, shaken by the boy’s profligacy. Had he learned nothing from the unending
trudge? The harrowing woap? The rampled skoon?
Now, he said, turning back to the map. These are the state roads.
Why are they state roads?
Because they used to belong to the states.
But there arent any more states?
What happened to them?
I dont know exactly.
The boy thought about that. Everything is very nebulous, isnt it, Papa?
Yes, said the nameless man to the nameless child, gazing out at the ruin caused by some massive anonymous catastrophe. Thats how we keep things interesting.
They came upon him shuffling along the road before them, dragging one leg slightly and stopping from time to time to scratch at his mealy nethers before lurching forth again.
What should we do, Papa?
We’re all right. Let’s just follow and watch.
They walked in silence.
He really scratches at his nethers a lot, the boy whispered.
Yes he does. They must be pretty mealy.
They followed behind a good ways until he just sat in the road and did not get up again. The boy clung to his father’s arm as they neared the huddled figure. They could see that the old man’s skin was badly quimpled beneath his ragged coat. One of his eyes was burnt fully shut and his hair was but a riggled mirkin upon his charred and dadgy headskull. A piece of scalp had been ripped off, mended with mudcrusted papier-mâché. Part of an ear chewn away, as if by swarming possums. An old coathanger for an arm, the bent hook forming a rude hand. A woolen scarf that totally clashed with his pants. As they passed they saw that he wore mittens on his feet. Upon his one good hand was a shoe. He sat in silence, exploring a nostril with his coathanger. He found something and brought it out for examination, grinning at the nosecrust before going in for more. The boy kept looking back as they walked. Let that be a lesson to you, said the man, keeping his voice low. Never wear a black scarf and brown pants.
The man had carried his billfold till it wore a cornershaped hole in his trousers. Then one day he sat by the roadside and took it out and went through the contents. A few dollar bills, a pair of credit cards. A holepunched card from a coffeeshop. A photograph of his wife, radiant in white. He looked at that a long time. When he and the boy had eaten and continued into the valley, he left the billfold and the cards where they lay. A final proof of his wife given to the blind and godless void. He looked back as they walked and was overcome with grief. He had been one holepunch away from a free twelve ounce coffee.
They stood in the high chiggerfilled wheatgrass and called to him. Prancing sprites in their natty Sunday best, wispy and shauntled. Across the dancefloor of a heatdried waste where the deathberm had lifted. A lie between verities. Gumption and woe among the mumbling bindlestiffs. A feastless smorgasbord. Was, not was. Mama said knock you out. Kid kid icarus, kid kid icarus. Google it if you must. The figures sunk into their narrow earthen spriteholes, inscrutable message delivered. He woke and lay in the dark, vaguely disappointed. He preferred the dreams with vaginas in them.