When Herald asked for Sándor’s “place of origin,” the old man said, “All the vacant lots in all the cities of the world,” and for a second Herald’s mind was flooded with visions of for sale signs tilting into mud; discarded underwear and t-shirts driven by years of wind into chain-link fences and hardened in place; bits of wire and string snaking between the weeds ready to snarl your shoes; the clatter of empty paint cans, tinkle of beer bottles; and abandoned tires like smoke rings belched out of stacks, solidified, and fallen to earth. He shook his head to clear it, stared at the old man, and asked again: “Place of origin?”
“Here you go.” Sándor handed over a sheet of foolscap folded six times, with the word “Passport” written in black crayon on the front.
“What’s this?” asked Herald.
“Passport,” Sándor said, looking at the customs agent as if he didn’t know how to read and maybe should learn. But then, seeing how tired and dispirited and under pressure the man on the other side of the partition was, he whispered, “Sorry.”
Herald thought about his response for a minute—whether to sigh or bite off the old man’s head—and he sighed, “It’s okay,” and began paging through the document, stopping at customs stamps made with a carved potato and a pad of red ink: entry visas to places such as “Trashkent,” “The Republic of Muck,” and “Fogbank, U.S.Z.R.” He came to the photo of a different old man, taken in one of those slot operated photograph booths, and gazed back across the partition. “Sándor Eszterhazy?” he asked.
Sándor nodded. “It’s the only picture of myself I had. From another life.”
Herald held the passport and stared at the old man like he was looking for box cutters and suicide bombs in the wrinkles of his face, the hairs of his beard, folds of his overcoat, three-piece suit, silk tie, the brass edging of the suitcase resting on the floor. “You wait right here,“ Herald said, opening the gate to his kiosk. “Don’t go anywhere.” Holding the passport, he disappeared into a mirrored enclosure at the end of the room.
Sándor nodded, grabbed his suitcase, put on his hat, and walked across the customs line into the United States, getting as far as the exit before three security guards surrounded him, put on handcuffs, and led him to a quiet room.
Herald walked down the corridor between the various cubicles and filing cabinets until he came to a door marked “Chief of Operations,” and was raising his fist to knock on it, when Barney Frow burst from inside.
“Jesus Christ, Herald, you’re border security for Christ’s sake! You left the old guy at your kiosk, and Rolf had to drag him back when he tried skipping across.”
Herald fumbled around, as he always did in front of Barney, as if he was testing out one excuse or another in mime before adding the words. “He’s just an old man, Barney. No terrorist, no criminal, not even the dumbest person in the world, nobody, would hand over something like this and pretend it’s a passport.”
Barney took the crayoned sheet from his hand and turned it over in the bleaching effect of the fluorescent lighting. This is what Herald did these days, ever since his annual work assessment had come back negative and he’d started bringing his uncertainties to Barney’s door. The problem for Barney was that the uncertainties were contagious, and after a few minutes of listening to him he always had this feeling that maybe Herald was right, they took all this border protocol stuff way too seriously, after all it was nothing more than a line drawn on paper. And the trouble with this—because lines and paper weren’t in themselves a problem—the real trouble was that Barney would realize once again that he didn’t care if all they were doing was guarding a map, in fact he’d never cared, it was a job and it was pay, and his life would be much easier if Herald also didn’t care, or, if caring was unavoidable, then to care the way Rolf did, to believe in the necessity of the line, its enforcement, even its violence, as the thing that shut out the endless questions and insecurities and dithering Herald brought to his door.
But Herald couldn’t stop asking questions. It was his fatal flaw. Two years ago, he’d taken pity on a boy, a minor “of middle eastern extraction,” and allowed him through even though his papers weren’t in order. The boy had gotten as far as the American side when Barney received an irate phone call from his American counterpart wanting to know whether the Canadian officers were “still checking the IBIS list,” or if they’d “switched to the one crammed up their asses?”
Then he’d waved through a Mexican family holding up phony passports, who then tried presenting the same documents when they were stopped for speeding fifteen kilometers north of the border. Herald said he’d known the passports were phony, but that “the kids were crying and the parents looked so tired and desperate I just felt like they really needed a break.”
He’d given in to a young woman who said her ex-husband had kidnapped her children and taken them across, after she’d presented him with three different photograph albums for each of the kids, and a court order barring the (supposed) ex-husband from coming within a hundred meters of any of them. But no passport.
Rolf had been telling Barney to fire Herald for months, and it was only Barney’s indifference and laziness that had saved him. The severance they’d have to pay Herald would destroy the checkpoint’s already austere budget, never mind the pain in the ass of having to sit through all the interviews to fill the position. But at night, in bed, there was a third reason—Herald running through Barney’s mind like a lullaby, putting him to sleep.
“Rolf’s got him in room 1-B,” Herald said, handing back the paper. “I’ll do you a favor and let you talk to him first. Find out what he is. Please don’t fuck it up.”
Now Herald stared at the old man across the table, still in his overcoat, suitcase balanced on his thighs. He looked quite elegant—silver-gray hair and beard, both neatly trimmed, three-piece suit, red tie. He had no accent. “Who are you really?” Herald asked.
“Sándor Eszterhazy,” replied the old man. “Really.”
“You do know you can’t get across the border without a proper passport, right?”
“These days,” the old man nodded, remembering something Herald remembered too. “It used to be easier,” he said, “before the . . . big boom.”
“Used to be?” Herald asked. “You’ve done this before?”
Sándor nodded and said he’d been hopping back and forth across the border for over fifty years, ever since 1948, the year he came to North America—that’s what he said, “North America,” as if he couldn’t remember whether he’d first arrived to Canada, the U.S., or Mexico—over 250 times, though he’d long ago stopped counting, and he’d even been caught a few times, with all the usual questions.
“If you’d been caught,” said Herald, “we’d have something on file.”
“There should be pictures,” Sándor replied. “Maybe you need better records.”
“Right,” said Herald, then nodded at the suitcase. “What’s in there?”
“My maps,” said Sándor.“
“Maps of . . ?”
“My country,” he continued, a little too eagerly, and Herald thought he heard him mutter something extra under his breath, something about time.
“Well, that would be a start,” said Herald, nodding at Sándor to open the bag, which the old man did, his spidery fingers spinning the tiny wheels of the lock under the handle, pulling apart and laying flat the two halves of the suitcase as if unfolding the wings of an eagle. Inside were a hundred packets bound with elastics, a pair of underwear, and a toothbrush. Within seconds Sándor had lifted out a packet and removed the elastic, and Herald moved quickly around the table and told the old man to step back. For the first time all afternoon he saw a flash of rage on Sándor’s face, its wrinkles so deep they might have been carved with a knife. He even thought Sándor was going to jump him, snarling, biting, rather than let him touch the packets, but the old man’s expression quickly changed to contrition and he stepped back, arms dangling, while Herald poked around inside the suitcase.
There was nothing other than the packets, hundreds of them, neatly stacked like wads of money. But the bits of paper in each packet were not uniform. Some of them were beer coasters, some were matchbook covers, some were waxy coffee cups cut open and flattened, and they were all covered with writing or drawings. Running his hands along the packets, Herald pulled one out at random.
Sándor stepped forward, remembered himself, stepped back. “That’s the American mid-west,” he said. “Please remember to put it back right there—between the Canadian prairies and northern Mexico.”
Herald shook his head. “You’ve been to Mexico?”
Sándor nodded. “It used to be the easiest border to get through.” He coughed. “But that was some time ago.” He coughed again. “I’m getting too old for what it requires these days.” He shuffled his feet, gazing at the suitcase and the packet in Herald’s hand.
Herald looked at him and nodded, then nodded again. “It’s a new world.”
Sándor shook his head. “Nothing new about it,” he murmured.
Herald either didn’t hear or didn’t care, but he motioned with a hand for Sándor to sit again, then slipped the rubber band off the packet and spread the bits of paper out on the table, picking them up one by one. They were hand-drawn maps in a hundred different styles—topographical; collages cut from photographs; watercolors from the perspective of a sidewalk; prose descriptions: “a wooden fence running along gradually tilting over, falling flat, right beside the pond covered in lilipads . . .” Herald spread them out, looked at them again, then at the old man, who winced whenever Herald picked up another one. And as he did so, maybe to console himself at their rough handling by the customs agent, Sándor began to speak their names, “Buffalo, Riverside neighborhood.” Herald let him go on, reaching into the suitcase for another packet, the old man ever more anxious, fidgeting in his seat, crossing his ankles, as if the maps were linked to the places they described and jostling them would have consequences in the real world, with ponds sloshing out, fences falling over, heaps of garbage sliding from one boundary to another.
“What’s this?” asked Herald, sliding a map across to the old man, who quickly pulled it to his chest before the customs agent had a chance to let go. Herald waited a minute, smiled, then tugged at the map, and Sándor quickly let go before they tore it between them. Herald pointed to two slots cut into the paper, the code, “AZP-11,” and “AZP-12,” written beside each in thick felt pen.
“Oh, it, uh, it fits with . . .” he looked at the customs agent and made a movement that was really a question, asking if he could stand, reach across the table. When Herald nodded he did so, sifting among the scraps until he found the one he was looking for and inserted it into the slot so that the two fragments came together seamlessly, like sections of a larger piece. “Boise, Idaho,” he muttered, looking to Herald again for permission to move. When Herald nodded he went back to the scraps, found the next one, mumbled, “Blaine, Washington,” and fit it into another slot.
“They all go together,” Herald said, looking down bewildered, as if he’d suddenly realized this wasn’t an ordinary lunatic he was dealing with, as if something threatening had crept into the room, a power he’d underestimated. Sándor nodded, smiling, his hand still on the three maps he’d put together, keeping them safe. “So this,” Herald waved his hand at the suitcase, “this is all America?”
Sándor frowned. “It has nothing to do with America, or any other place you’d care to name.” He motioned toward another piece, which Herald slid over. “Prescott, Arizona,” Sándor muttered, sliding it into place. The words sounded like a conjuration, and Herald only realized a minute later that he’d come around to Sándor’s side of the table and was leaning in, curious to see how the contours of one map became those of another.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Herald said, but the old man only muttered something and went on searching through the packets, so that by the time Herald reached the door the map had grown from four pieces to six, Sándor’s hands moving quickly now, fitting a fragment in with his right while searching out the next with his left.
Barney was reaching for the fridge when Herald entered the lunchroom.
“How’s it going in there?”
“I think we should let the old man go,” Herald said, pulling two bottles of water from the top rack and opening one of them.
“Did he tell you who he is?” There was impatience, even rage, in Barney’s voice. “Or do you just think we should just hand out another free pass?”
Herald shook his head. “No I.D. No file in the database. Nothing.”
“So if we let him go, which country does he end up in, Canada or the U.S?” When Herald shrugged Barney shook his head. “Do your job, Herald.” Barney’s hand twitched. The supervisor put it in his pocket, embarrassed. “Do your job,” he said again, but Herald was no longer sure if he was talking to him or the hand. “Unless you’re not interested in having one anymore.” Herald pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead, though it was more to give his hand something to do than get rid of the sweat.
“Listen, Barney, this place, for me it’s . . .”
“I know Herald. The ex-wife. The alimony. You’ve told me. How old’s your kid now? Five? Does she ever let you go see him? Think she’s going to be more inclined that way if you get fired? What else do you have? The crap apartment on the lower east side. The shitbucket Ford you drive. This job’s all you’ve got.”
Herald looked around the lunchroom—at the bulletin boards with their years’ old notices and dusty cartoons, the radio impossible to tune, the battered crib-board with the deck of cards so worn they flopped over in your hand like rags—props for people who came here to recover, worn out, requiring a quiet half hour, from the thrill of exercising a power that was always a little like panic, the feeling that with each question they asked of this or that traveller a little more of the truth escaped, as if you were punching holes in a tire and then trying to block them finger by finger until you ran out. It was a feeling you protected yourself from by believing that if you were authoritative enough nothing would slip by, nothing would go beneath notice, until you did believe it, and with that came a terrible and constant exhaustion. Sometimes Herald wondered what would happen if he turned the place inside out—he could do it if he tried—erasing files, waving the wrong people through, believing every story. How long before things started exploding—the courts and prisons, the capitals, the borders? How long before this place became irrelevant, emptied, seeds floating in through the broken windows and lodging themselves in cracks fertile with coffee grounds, bread crumbs, bits of banana peel rotted to topsoil; the seals on taps failing, pipes rotted open, water flowing down halls and corridors to form brackish pools filled with tadpoles, water beetles, leeches; pigeons nesting in the mailroom cubbies, raccoons moved into the fridge, wasp nests and butterflies and mosquitos buzzing an echo of the fluorescent lights now overhead? It wasn’t a thought he shared, only fantasized about as the days got shorter and nights came on, as winter temperatures fell too low for mittens or hot coffee to help, the futile attempt to secure the border following him home as cars streamed past, or pedestrians bowed low under snow and bad credit and late-night groceries. On nights like that it seemed to Herald there was no escaping the border, the rules and regulations that haunted you long before and long after you’d left the checkpoint, after you thought you’d stopped establishing who you were and where you were going and what your business was, as if the border was everywhere and countries nowhere and the passage between them long as life.
“You know what, Herald? You remind me of some of the people who get stuck here. You can’t go back, you can’t go ahead. This ain’t a place, Herald. You just pass through it or not, that’s all. It’s just a job. You need to get that through your head.”
The return of Barney’s voice reminded him of Sándor, alone in the room. Herald shook his head to clear it of the visions, thinking again of Sándor as a magician, or, worse, the source of some pollution that was even now contaminating him.
Barney never noticed the younger man’s agitation, speaking on as if Herald had been listening the whole time: “What I’m saying, bottom line, is if you can’t get the old guy to talk, I can send in Rolf.”
“I’ll get him to talk,” said Herald, snapping back to attention. “It’s no problem. I just needed a drink.” He lifted out a couple of bottles of cold water. Barney nodded without believing him, then reached into the fridge for something of his own.
By the time Herald got back to the room the map was almost entirely assembled, and he stood in the door with his mouth open, Sándor moving around the floor like some eleven year old with a new train set. It’s like he wasn’t seventy years old anymore, no longer calcified up the spine, scrabbling around on hands and knees, muscles loose, veins softened to pump the required volume of blood. “It’s almost done,” he kept muttering, “almost done, just a second,” tongue at the corner of his mouth, putting the pieces in place without even looking to see if the codes matched up, as if he knew the whole map by feel. And what a map it was—taking over the place. It wasn’t flat either, some of the fragments rising out of it in relief, 3-D, all the textures needed to convey the geography of his lost country—mountains of paper fitted together, hollows and depressions, even odd tunnels as if in places he’d turned on his back and mapped the hills right up to the sky and then kept going down the other side. Herald was about to say something when Sándor stopped. He stood up in bits and pieces—from all fours to squatting on a knee to stretching out a leg to using a thigh for leverage—mounting up rickety as old scaffolding.
“It’s ready,” he said. “Want to go?”
“Go?” asked Herald. “Go?” He looked around the room, then peered at the map, its shapes and colors like a mosaic, amazed and terrified by it at the same time.
Sándor put a steadying hand on him. “Being lost isn’t easy. Not at first.”
“Right,” said Herald, barely managing to pull away. He didn’t know how to continue. This wasn’t what he’d expected on returning to the room. He’d had some notion of taking charge, sitting Sándor down, going through the story again for some hint that would place the man and where he came from before Barney called in Rolf.
Herald squatted by the map and ran his fingers over the contours, tracing the surface of the dry papers, thinking if he said nothing Sándor would begin to speak on his own, to reveal himself. It worked sometimes, shutting your mouth, making the other person uncomfortable enough to break the silence. But with Sándor the silence went on and on, and Herald found himself looking at a particular plot of land—it looked like a railway station—staring at it like he was some kid sitting on a suitcase waiting for a train, gazing down the track wondering whether it was true, the rails had been torn up in the fighting, the Russians were coming, his parents were off somewhere trying to find another way out, telling him to wait here, don’t move, we’ll be back soon, though it was night already, and the crowd was overwhelming, and he’d had to drag the suitcase several times as they jostled him further down the platform.
“You look like you could use some help,” said Sándor. He was different now, something in his face, not a lost old man at all, not an illegal trying to cross the border, but someone else, drifting stateless, unrecognized by law, equally at home everywhere.
Herald didn’t say it, but he wanted to—he wasn’t sure where to go from here.
“They’re not coming back,” said Sándor, closing his eyes. He looked at the dirty snow along the ground, on the useless tracks, dusting the lapels of the men, women and children standing in the gathering dark, all of them thin from years of war, no supplies, homeless, seeking to migrate west, but it could as easily have been south or north or east, the compass points like a dice throw, anywhere but here. “They’re as lost as the rest of us,” said Sándor, putting his hand on Herald again. It felt like he was being taken on, asked to come along, and at any minute Sándor was going to reach into his pocket and pull out a sandwich made days ago, stale bread, paprika, bacon lard, the boy Herald was, the boy he’d become, eating it ravenously, its crust softened with tears.
How many places did they flee through that afternoon? Herald would have a hard time remembering. There were so many things Sándor pointed out to him, his joyfulness out of synch with all the customs agent felt gazing at the geography, not quite sure where he was, endless the people streaming down roads the old man conjured, trying to figure out whether it was Europe or America in the cut of their rags, old trousers cinched with rope, blouses worn on top of one another so that one layer would stop the rips in another, hats too big or too small or just filled with too many holes to keep out the wind, long coats that looked like they’d been taken off the bodies of soldiers. It was hard to keep up with the places Sándor guided him through, and Herald felt as if he was running alongside, desperate not to be left behind, at the same time glancing over his shoulder, trying to memorize what had already passed by like some boy keeping track of signposts that would one day lead back to where he’d last seen his parents.
“What’s your real name?” he finally asked, glancing at an enormous blank space on the map, ten times larger than the other ones between the vacant lots and abandoned properties the old man had memorialized.
“My name is Sándor Eszterhazy.”
“Where are we? Europe? Is that where you came from?”
“We came over from there, you and me, together after the war.”
“So, what is my name?” Herald asked.
The old man shrugged. “You lost it,” he said, pointing at the large blank space, “somewhere on the voyage across.” He put his hand on Herald’s shoulder. “It doesn’t really matter what your name was.”
Herald looked down at the map even though he didn’t want to, frightened by what it aroused in him, immersion in chaos, random migration, the flight of refugees across that torn-up landscape, one place as unidentifiable, as bombed out and cratered and burnt up, as all the rest. But the blank space was a relief, like some ocean, a play of waves that went beyond the horizon, with nothing to break the blissful monotony. The old man was as calm and relaxed as if he was captain of the ship, glancing west, muttering about what they’d find in America, promises of life, stories of cowboys and Indians, mountains of money, where a man could be born in a tenement and die in a mansion, where there was surely the means—through the US Army, the Red Cross, the United Nations—to locate his parents. “And if not,“ Sándor said, “then I’ll look after you.” He pointed back at the map, where another detailed lot had appeared, poking into the ocean. “We’ve arrived.”
It was a congested little drawing, cramped with design, and Herald was trying to sort it out when Rolf and two other guards stepped in—badges, guns, uniforms—and the edges of the map piled against the door spilled into the hallway.
“We’ve got a problem here,“ they said, staring dumbstruck at the artwork across the floor as if it were crawling around, moving up the walls, threatening to smother them. “Barney figures it’s time we separated you two,” said Rolf, looking at Herald, then back at Sándor, who seemed to have lost himself in some private sadness, his face downcast, lost in shadow, trying to summon up a language equivalent to his feeling.
“I told Barney it was okay,” said Herald. “I don’t need help. Please,“ he said, his voice like a child’s. “I’m close . . . to him. Don’t separate us now.”
“You’re a screw up Herald,” said Rolf. The other two guards were still staring at the map. “You’re no border guard. All you end up doing is letting illegals through. If not for Barney you’d have been fired ages ago.”
“Fuck you,” said Herald, and with that Rolf laughed, grabbed Sándor by the arms, and hauled him out of the room while the other two guards barred Herald from following.
“Wait for me, Sándor,” Herald yelled. “I’ll come find you.” But the old man’s head was jerking back, looking from Herald to the map and back again, as if they were the customs agent’s consolation prize.
“What the fuck are you doing, Barney? I had him. He was about to tell me everything.”
Barney looked down at the forms Herald’s entrance had scattered from his desk. “You weren’t getting anywhere, Herald,” he said. “The old man was just telling you about his art project.” Barney gestured without looking at one of the monitors hanging from the ceiling, and Herald turned to watch as Rolf sat the old man by another desk in another interrogation room and said, “Forget about Herald. You’re going to have to deal with us now.” He nodded in the direction of the two other guards, off camera.
“He can find me,” the old man said. “There’s the map.”
“The map doesn’t belong to you anymore,” said Rolf. “It belongs to us.”
“No. There’s the map.” The old man pointed to something behind Rolf, who turned, then suddenly got out of his chair, the monitor screen fluttering, white, crosshatched with lines, curlicues, contours.
Herald turned back to Barney, who was still engrossed in his paperwork.
“Orphanages,” he said.
“What?” asked Barney, looking up.
“We need to look through orphanage records. I’ll bet you they’ve got something on this guy. Maybe even on the other old guy. The one he came over with.”
“What other old guy?” asked Barney. When Herald said nothing he snorted. “It would take ten years to get those kinds of records.”
“Ellis Island,” said Herald. “That’s where they arrived to, where they were separated.” He paced up and down the room. “I’ll bet you he was in an orphanage in the city. New York. It wouldn’t take that long to get the information. Not ten years.”
Barney stopped and put both hands on the desk. “I’ve been carrying you a long time, Herald,” he said.
Herald wasn’t listening. He imagined himself sitting quietly by a long table, trying to respond to what the men across from him were asking, even as one of them came around and smacked him on the back of the head with each question, then smacked him again, hard, his head nearly hitting the table as it snapped forward and slowly came back up, blinking away the tears he’d never, in all the years afterwards, ever manage to blink away. He reached for water when they offered it. He accepted a sandwich when they said it was okay. He went to bed at curfew, did his lessons diligently during the day, played all the games when they were let out into the yard. He asked to go the bathroom and said “Thank you“ when they said go ahead, perfecting the kind of passivity it takes years to drill into a child, preferably at an age when he’s too young and alone to know better. And then one day, years later, they just let him go, kicked out past the orphanage fence into the terrifying immensity of America with no direction at all, to look for the old man these people must have chased off, because there’s no way he would have willingly abandoned him—who was still out there somewhere along a trackless geography, without an address to pin him to, present and waiting in the same ruined places where they’d been happy once, in fields and roads and empty homes that were anywhere, to the other side of laws and guards, borders and checkpoints.
“He made the maps to find the old man.” Herald whispered. “And he did. He found him. His name is Sándor Eszterhazy.”
“Herald, you’re fired.” Barney was shouting now, standing at his desk, drowning out whatever Herald was saying. “We cannot let him go without a name. You understand me? A real name, from a real birth certificate, and a real social security number, and some real country of fucking origin. You know we can’t.”
“I’m not asking you to let him go,” Herald said, nodding in the direction of the monitor. “Look. You’ve already lost him.”
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Tamas Dobozy is a professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. He has published three books of short fiction, When X Equals Marylou, Last Notes and Other Stories, and, most recently, Siege 13: Stories, which won the 2012 Rogers Writers Trust of Canada Fiction Prize, and was shortlisted for both the Governor General's Award: Fiction, and the 2013 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. He has published over fifty short stories in journals such as One Story, Fiction, Agni, and Granta, won an O. Henry Prize in 2011, and a Gold Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards in 2014.
My home. 250 Louisa Street, Kitchener, ON. Canada.
I can't think of any place that has more treasure living in it.