Damon Barta


Damon Barta once lived in a place where he could see for miles in every direction. He now lives safely among trees. His work has appeared in several print and online journals. Selected fiction can be found at http://damonbarta.site88.net/.

Flight Path

Will was too young to remember the vacuum-cleaner salesman, but he remembered the roar of his product as it sucked dust from the deep-pile carpet. He remembered the sour odor, badly masked by aftershave, of a desperate man whose livelihood depended on door-to-door demos for housewives who didn't wait for their husbands to get home to sign checks. Will's father was home that day, laid off the day before. He let the man clean the carpet, but he did not sign any checks. The roar stopped, but the smell lingered. Will remembered looking up at his father, who watched through the living-room window as the man who smelled like fear trudged back to an old Cadillac, a dilapidated artifact of better fortune, his back crumpled around a mute vacuum.

Will was twelve years older when a different man came to sell World Book. This man smelled like mild soap and wore stylish eyeglasses that framed soft brown eyes. He carried a small briefcase, within which was a thick, crisply-bound book with gilded pages. He opened the book as he had opened his briefcase, with one fluid and magisterial sweep of his hand. He watched Will's mother carefully while he did this. He was not a hopeful beggar like the vacuum-cleaner salesman. He would leave quickly and politely if he did not see what he needed to see. He stayed.

The book opened at "Anacard," and a large, glossy picture of what both Will and his mother had always thought of as a cashew opposed a terse paragraph on the next page for "Anachronism." Will's mother flipped pages. The man watched her eyes. She looked down at the pages of the World Book then looked out the living-room window at the world. This world began and ended for her at the edge of town, a gulch with steep walls, a sunken spot where fetid lives collected.

"Keep it for now," said the salesman. "I'll come back in a week, and if you don't want it, I'll take it with me. If you do, we'll talk."

She kept it, but she wouldn't let Will touch it.

"Wait," she said. "Just wait. I don't know if we can buy it."

She delicately set the book on a shelf near the living-room window, where worlds had always negotiated between themselves. She watched the World Book man make his way, with a weightless gait and an empty case, to a car that few in the gulch would consider a luxury but most would agree was very reliable.

Will waited until she was asleep, then he took the book down from the shelf and opened it. By morning, he had not slept at all, and he knew of things he had never imagined. He had learned that there were living things in the world that did not need oxygen, that memories could suddenly and irretrievably be lost, and that there were people who didn't pretend to know what caused anything. Concepts were born and named in the same moment, and questions ensued.

Anaerobes, Amnesia, Agnostic. A collection of matters bound only by the spine of the World Book, or were they? Did the letters they held in common constitute some secret shared meaning? To complicate things, the image of the new words would sometimes dislodge themselves from the new concepts and float free in Will's mind, where their mysteries deepened.

Will's mother woke and found her bleary-eyed son staring out the living-room window, trying to reconcile the soot-stained shingles in front of his eyes with the silver sheen of Anthracite behind them. Anthracite burns slowly.

"Have you had breakfast?"


"You'd better have breakfast. It's almost time for school."

"I don't want any."

"Have something anyway."

His mother produced an Apple.

"What kind is it?"

"What kind? It's an apple."

"There are thousands of them."

"Probably a lot more than that."

"No, Mom, kinds. There are thousands of kinds." Will started to cry.

"Red Delicious. I think it's Red Delicious. Did you sleep?"

"No. I couldn't."

"Why not?"

"I had a dream about Dad," he lied. He was thinking of the word "Anabaptist."

Will's mother swallowed. "Do you want to tell me about it?"


"Do you need to stay home from school and rest?"


"Okay. But then you rest. No TV. Are you sure you don't want to tell me about it?"


"You're not sure?"

"I don't want to tell."

Will did not like to lie to his mother, so he tried to think of ways that what he'd said could be true. He did have dreams of his father sometimes, and they did upset him. In one of them, his father was a mangy cat who clawed his way up the bluffs of the gulch and was killed immediately by a truck on the highway. The dreams were usually bad, but they were his only ways of bringing his father back into the world that he knew. That world had seemingly gotten bigger in a single night. He could now imagine his father in Argentina, the Andes, or Antarctica. He decided that this, too, was a sort of dream. He'd dreamed about his father. He had to stay home and rest.

"I might not be home until five," his mother said. Her shift usually ended at three. She wanted to buy him the World Book. "Get some sleep."

Will did fall asleep. He dreamed he was an Archeologist.

When he got up, he went straight for the World Book. He marveled at the benefits of Acupuncture as he tried to imagine a world without Anthropic interpretation.

Archeologists study what people who are gone have left behind. Acupuncturists use pins to relieve pain. There could be any number of unbeheld worlds.


Will had the book open in his lap when he heard the car pull up. Thinking it was his mother, he marked his page with a long strand of hair he had found on the carpet before putting the book carefully back on the shelf. He waited for the heavy crunch of the front door, his mother's voice, the thud of grocery bags on the table. Instead there were three loud raps, then the doorbell. There was a woman at the door, about his mother's age.

"Hello, Will." She knew his name and felt comfortable using it. There was even a hint of maternal authority in it, though he was not sure who she was. The factory next to the river produced these figures as prolifically as it did zinc, lead, and arsenic: village busybodies who knew some things about their neighbors and, under the pretense of "concern," were determined to know more.

Will's mother had been rushed to the hospital, the woman at the door told him. An Aneurism. Will tried to let this word float away, but it tethered itself to a full-page glossy photo of a distended artery.

"When will she be home?"

The woman squinted, and her furrowed brow seemed to push the corners of her mouth down.

"When will she be home?" he asked again.

"An aneurism is very serious, Will. Is your father here?"

"Not right now."

"Do you know how I can get a hold of him?"


"Do you want me to take you to the hospital?"


"I think you should let me take you to the hospital. She's in the city. They had to airlift her to the city."

"For Angioplasty?"

The woman blinked several times. "Maybe. How did you know that?"

Will looked at the living-room window and saw a translucent World Book reflected back at him, superimposed on the smokestack outside. His father, and now his mother, were out past the boundaries of the known world, but he wanted to stay here with Astronauts and Amazons.

"I'm going to stay," he said. "I'm going to wait for my dad."

The woman blinked again, more rapidly this time. "Where did you say he was?"

"Out of town. I'm going to wait."

The woman shrugged. She seemed vaguely offended by his decision, but she did not protest. She walked back to her car and drove away.

Will went back inside and opened the World Book. He read the entry on Astrology. Astrological signs could supposedly be seen in groups of stars, but when Will closed the book that night and went outside, where no one had connected these stars with bright white lines, he could not imagine scorpions or bulls or goats. He thought it looked more like some spastic child had thrown handfuls of thumbtacks at a black canvas. He went back inside.


Not everything inside had a correspondent outside. This was true of the World Book especially. There were Argonauts. There was Algebra. There was Absolute zero. Things he could not touch. Things he could never see with his own eyes. But then he'd never encountered an Aardvark or met an Archbishop either. What was the difference? There were only a few things that Will thought he could know for sure: the deep-pile carpet on which he now woke every morning, the book open on his lap all afternoon, the waning light in the living-room window as evening approached. All else was hearsay. Still, there seemed a difference between the murmured rumors of gossip-mongers in the gulch and the glossy pictures of Athens in World Book. Some accounts of the world seemed more plausible than others. Your father lives just down the road, in the city. The Parthenon still stands.

The light faded and Will went to sleep. He dreamed that he had unearthed the round table of Arthurian legend. He found it just underneath the petrified remains of a dead cat.


The World Book man came back the next day. He squinted at the check Will handed him.

"You're sure your mom wanted me to fill in the amount?"

Will nodded. "You never told her how much. But she wants the whole set."

"She can pay in installments. Does she want to pay in installments?"

"No, she'd like to pay for them all right now."

"I see. Well, that's perfectly fine too. I will bring her check to my boss and we'll ship World Book right away."


"Yes, it shouldn't take more than a week."

"You don't have them with you?"

"Not a whole set."

"What do you have?"

"I have an N-O, for demos, and a special volume that contains world maps."

"How much for those?"

"Well, we don't sell individual volumes. But you'll get the maps for free when you buy the set."

"Then you can leave those two and ship the rest?"

The man looked at the check again. "Can I get your phone number on here?"


"I'll leave the maps."

"And N-O."

"Your copy of N-O will come with the others. I can't give you two."



The world map folded out from the middle, many times over, until it nearly eclipsed the carpet. The flattened globe looked like the giant rinds of a peeled blue-green fruit. Will took a pencil and made a mark where he imagined his town was. Now he had a point of reference. He used the scale to measure out the distance from there to Tokyo. Eight thousand miles, give or take. London: 3500. Philadelphia: 2000. Los Angeles: 1750. He tried to make a pencil mark at the place where his mother was. The scale of the map would not allow it. On this map, any distance between Will and his mother was negligible. In theory, his father could be anywhere. He made marks with his pencil as the impulse struck him, like the half-wit who'd made the stars. It was easier to believe that his father had fled to Madagascar or Spain, Greenland or Laos, than it was to believe that he had simply settled into the city just down the road--that on a world scale they occupied the same place.

A police car pulled into the driveway. Will went to the window and wondered what would happen if he did not answer the door. Would this uniformed man with the sagging jaw lower one of his hulking shoulders and force his way in? The man knocked loudly and waited. He knocked again and waited. He came to the living-room window and tried to look inside. Will stepped back and looked at the man looking. The day was bright, but the house was not. The cop was struggling to see past his own reflection and that of the smokestack behind him. He pressed his face to the glass like a capricious child. Will half-expected his tongue to come out. His cheeks adhered to the glass for a moment and left steam cloud jowls that shrunk slowly as he walked back to his car.

Will sat back down in front of the map and began to cry. How could there be so many people in so many places, so far from each other? Why did almost no distance feel the same as eight thousand miles? He drew lines between the pencil marks he'd made on the map and tried to find the shape of something he might recognize. Nothing. The word "aneurism" suddenly abandoned its place and drifted like a hitchhiker through Will's mind watching potential vessels pass it by. He tore the world map out of the book, and beneath it he found another map, this one of a single landmass, snugly condensed onto one page. It was labeled "Pangaea: the supercontinent." Here was the one from which the many had sprung. The place before the drift. Will folded the world map as many times as he could and put it in his pocket. He left Pangaea lying in the center of the floor.


Will felt the fact of distance, the consequences of drift, in his weary legs. He had gone about twelve miles before he began stopping to look hopefully behind him at oncoming cars. He couldn't bring himself to use his thumb. As soon as he'd reached the rim of the gulch, he could see across it to the highway on the other side. A few steps further and there was only horizon, the only trace of the town below a black plume of smoke from the factory smokestack. Or maybe it was the breath of a sleeping dragon from an Arthurian legend, torpid after a feast of flesh. Some accounts of the world seemed more plausible than others. The living room he hadn't left for more than a week now seemed as hypothetical as his next step. He walked on the loose gravel between the paved highway and the grassy ditch, kicking rocks to one side or the other, listening alternately to chirping birds and rumbling engines.

Will had stopped looking back at cars, and he could now only hear the sound of uninterrupted velocity as they approached. His plaintive gazes had not been able to penetrate these wind-shielded little worlds. Not even here, twelve miles from a place where everyone was curious to a fault. Cars kept emerging from the ground, mirages that moved closer, made sounds, moved away. It occurred to Will that he had brought nothing to eat. He sat down on the roadside and watched the horizon behind him. Another mirage emerged, and Will waited for it to evaporate. Instead, the World Book salesman pulled to the side right behind him.

The hazard lights flashed an invitation, and Will came to the passenger-side window. Nothing happened. He brought his face up to the glass, careful not to let it touch. Still nothing. He put his forehead to the glass and peered. The salesman's face was dimly discernible now, and Will could see his lips moving. "Winter donut worms," he seemed to say.

"What?" said Will.

"We know Disney World."


Finally, the man reached over and opened the door.

"Window doesn't work," he said. "Would you like to get in?"


The inside of the car smelled like new vinyl and warm meat.

"Headed home?" the World Book man asked, not waiting for the answer before swinging a wide U-turn across the empty highway.

"No, I'm going the other way." The man fluidly followed his U-turn with another, making an elegant circle as if it had been his intent all along.

"Where to, then?"

"The city."

"Me too. I've sold as much as I can back there. Time to move on. Does your mother know you're out here?"

"No. She's in the city. At the hospital. An aneurism."

"Jesus. Why are you walking there? Where's your dad?"

"The city."

"At the hospital?"


"Mm." He seemed to understand something Will had not told him. "My father has been gone a long time."

"Mine too. He left when I was little and he didn't come back. I barely remember him."

"Jesus. I remember my dad, but he's dead now."

"When someone is not there they might as well be dead."

"That's true. When someone is not there they are only a story that you tell yourself." Will thought about the marked-up map, hopelessly crushed and dampened in his pocket, and Pangaea, back at the house on its pristine page.

"When people aren't missing things, they don't need stories."

"What happened to your dad?"

"He hung himself with the cord from one of his vacuum cleaners. He sold vacuum cleaners. Or didn't sell them. That was part of the problem."

"Why couldn't he sell them?"

"He did, for a while. But things changed."

"What changed?"

"The stories people told themselves. When my father first started, he sold a lot of vacuums. He would go to a house, show the person inside how well his product cleaned the carpet, and walk out with a check in his hand. This worked for several years. It worked because for these people inside their houses the world was their houses. And who doesn't want to live in a better world?"

"People still vacuum their floors, don't they?"

"Sure. But when enough of the people in their houses started believing in worlds beyond those houses, they stopped trying to make the known world better, and started dreaming about another one. These dreams did not involve vacuum cleaners. This required an adjustment that my father was unable to make. He was unable to make it because he thought he was selling a product."

"You're selling a product."

"Do you see any products in here?"

"You ship them. I have some of your books at my house."

"What house?" Will did not have a good answer for this. He had all but forgotten the house once he started walking.

"You're not in a house, and you aren't carrying any books. I found you on a highway with nothing in your hands."

"I'm hungry," Will said.

"Lucky for you, I wasn't." He reached behind his seat, pulled out a brown paper bag, and handed it to Will. Will reached inside and found something still warm in a sheath of tin foil, which he began peeling away. "I sell a different story than my father did. It's about worlds that are far away. Some people want to hear this story right now. Think their children can live in one of these worlds if they read about it. Maybe not in five years. Maybe their kids have gone then. Maybe they can't remember their faces, or which of those hypothetical worlds they disappeared into. Maybe in five years they want their homes to be the only place again."

"What will you do then?"

"Sell them a different story."

Will bit off the tip of what turned out to be a rubbery hot dog in a soggy bun. The highway stretched out on either side of them, like a line someone draws between two points and calls a snake.


Road signs started appearing as they approached the city. Signs of green aluminum, signs with substance. They passed "51st Avenue," "Business District," and "City Center." Then there was a sign with two symbols: a large "H" and a tiny white airplane bearing the caption, "Next Right." They took the exit, where they found the H and the plane on their own signs, arrows pointing in opposite directions.

"I'm on my way to the airport," said the salesman. "But I can take you to the hospital."

"Why are you going to the airport?"

"I'm flying to Hawaii."

"What for?"

"Just to be somewhere else."

Will had never been to Hawaii. Or an airport. "Where else can you go from there?"

"Just about anywhere. Sometimes you have to stop somewhere and get on another plane, but you can go anywhere."

Will tried to visualise an infinity of lines radiating from the first pencil mark on his world map. A profusion of flight paths. The thought felt like a thousand pins in his skull. Not the kind that acupuncturists use to relieve pain, but the kind that made holes in the sky. He started to cry.

"I'm sorry about your mom, Will. I know it's not much, but I'm going to tear up that check you gave me and ship you World Book anyway."

"I don't want it. It's just a story. You said so yourself."

"Okay. I'll just take you to the hospital."

"I don't want that either." If Will's mother wasn't there with him now, she only could be dead, but it didn't work the other way. If he knew for certain that she was dead, she could never be there. Not unless he was dreaming.

"What do you want?"

"To go to the airport."

"Have you never been?"



There were more signs as they approached the airport. Blue ones now. "Arrivals," "Departures," "Short Term Terminal Parking." They followed one that read "Rental Return."

Inside, still more signs: "Security," "Customs," "Information." He walked with the World Book man to his gate, where they sat down together and waited for the boarding call. "I feel really strange about this," said the World Book man. "Leaving you here. Are you sure you don't want me to take you to the hospital? I could get the next flight."

"It's okay."

"Do you have money for a cab?"


"To get to the hospital."

"I was going to walk."

"Don't walk. Here . . ." He reached inside his pocket and pulled out a warm wad of bills. Will took them, clutching them tightly to preserve the warmth. He pretended they were a promise.

Will and the World Book man watched the jet bridge unfold and extend.

"That thing always reminds me of a strange vacuum attachment that my dad had trouble explaining to people. Another reason he didn't fare well as a salesman. Also, he refused to fly. Limited his range."

"When will you come back?"

"I don't know. I haven't booked a return flight yet."

Will started to cry.

"Oh, Will," he said. "I know." He opened his briefcase and took out N-O. "Hang on to this for me. I'll come and get it from you when I get back."

Will clutched the book to his chest and felt his heart bounce back at him off the stiff cardboard cover.


Will wandered the airport with wide eyes. He counted the number of destinations on the screen of a large monitor. Two hundred and four: a finite number. Will found this comforting until he realized that all these departures would arrive at other airports, from which another two hundred destinations, maybe more, would become available. These were what the World Book man called "connections." The options may not have been infinite, but they were exponential. Pins in the skull.

Will walked from gate to gate, passing restaurants and bookstores and newsstands and cafes and gift shops. He looked in from the corridor at hundreds of different people, each doing one of the same few things. He thought of a salamander he'd once had in a terrarium, moving from rock to plant to water to rock. He wondered if the salamander conceived of these as "options."

Will came upon something like an escalator, only flat. He could stand still and it would move him through the airport. Some people walked on it. This seemed redundant. Will stood sideways, and now the shops were like comic book frames, and he tried to imagine the story this book might be telling. He couldn't figure it out. Sometimes people came out of the frames. A young woman brushed by him as she ran towards a gate, desperate to make a connection. Will had just seen her in the gift-shop queue, buying a sweatshirt with the city's name on it, though she had not been in the city for more than an hour, and she had only arguably been in "the city." He averted his eyes when a white-bearded man with not enough buttons on his shirt looked out of the frame and directly at him, grinning conspiratorially as he sipped foam from a glass that had the name of a beer on it. Will wondered whether the beer on the glass was the same as the beer in the glass. He wondered whether potential discrepancies mattered in these cartoons at all.

Will found an empty bench in a quiet alcove and went to sleep with N-O under his head. He dreamed that he was back at the rim of the gulch, looking over the top at the other side. The World Book man stood on the other side, shouting at him. When the man opened his mouth, Will could hear no sounds, but the shapes of the words themselves sprang forth from his open mouth and flew towards Will. Before he could see what they were, they dropped into the gulch and disappeared. He knew, somehow, that among these lost words was the man's name.

When Will woke, he was hungry. He hadn't eaten anything but a soggy hot-dog in two days. He fumbled for the warm crumpled bills he knew were in his pocket as he lurched towards a kiosk that sold giant pretzels. He felt their pulpy warmth, but once they were in his hand, he reconsidered. He was hungry, but this hunger had given his dreams new dimensions, and he had begun to believe that if he kept dreaming, he might catch a glimpse of a world that had been there before people had to tell stories about who and what was not there. Also, he no longer had to sleep to dream. He let the damp wad drop back to the bottom of his pocket. Will hadn't even considered opening the N-O. It was just a hard weight against his ribs that slowed him down. He set it down on the pretzel counter and kept walking. "Thanks," said the pretzel vendor, as if yet another ordinary transaction had been made. "Have a good day."

He dreamed as he walked. His mother was lying on a table, Will standing by with a skull full of pins. He plucked the pins from his head and put them in his mother.

When he came upon a pay phone, Will called intensive care at the hospital and asked for his mother.

"Who is this?" said a sharp voice on the other end of the line.

"I'm Will. I'm her son."

"We've been trying to contact you, Will." The voice softened so quickly that Will almost hung up the phone. "Can I put you on with the doctor?"


He tried to flee into the space that he knew existed between the sounds that came out of the doctor's mouth and the things they described, but the words she used made it across before he could get there, and they hit Will like a blizzard of pins or a handful of hurled tacks. He started to cry.

He went back to the gate where the World Book man had vanished. There was no one there now and no plane outside. The jet bridge had been retracted. It looked like the withered stump of an Amputee. Will curled up next to the door and went to sleep.

He dreamed he was in an airport, one in which there were only arrivals. The planes touched down tentatively, wheels skipping before gaining the runway for good, while the jet bridges reached out eagerly and without doubt to touch them. People poured through the gates and out onto the terminal plaza, where there were no restaurants, no shops, no kiosks, no telephones, no signs. Just black walls embedded with millions of shiny pins and Will lying on his back in the center of the floor, surrounded by a swelling mass of humanity. His mother emerged from one of the gates. His father from another. The World Book man from yet another. Each of them plucked a pin from the wall and, just like everyone else, approached Will at the center of the plaza. No one made a sound. One by one, the billions came and pushed their pins delicately into Will's body. With each one, Will felt the pain ebb from his skull. With each one, it became more and more difficult to distinguish between the body that accepted the pins and the hands that pushed them in.

Will awoke to the sound of a boarding call. The gate was jammed with people hurrying towards a queue for departure. Some of them even laughed as they pulled away from outstretched arms and shuffled towards what the World Book man thought of as an inexplicable attachment, and what Will couldn't help but think of as a phantom limb.