Us Mapmakers

by Nicholas Deshais

Abandoned coffee cups fill the valleys between mountainous stacks of paper. Candy and gum are squirreled away in some long-forgotten caches. One bright plot of cleared land stretches before my monitor, a plain of cleanliness. There the keyboard and mouse reign with unmitigated power. And there are maps.

But basically, it's just a messy desk on the fourth floor of City Hall. It's mine.

Last month, a new mayor took his place on the other side of the building, also on the fourth floor. He cleaned up at the ballot box saying he'd clean house at City Hall. He said he'd search from the basement to the roof looking for ways to trim the fat, make it efficient. Unlike my cubicle, his office is some incredibly big real estate, with windows facing the mountains out east. There's a solid purple couch, a big oak table, jars of individually-wrapped candy, it's cleaned every night by the custodial crew, all that. And the mayor's staff of seven takes up the same space as the 30 of us here in GIS, us mapmakers. They get the east half, we get the west. Fifty percent, right in two.

The guy that hired me a couple of years ago, he was one of the department heads to leave at the request of the new mayor. No one knows why, and I didn't care. Fat to be trimmed, I guess. He was just the guy in the bigger office with a door and windows to stare at us all through. I think he remembered my name, but I couldn't say for sure.

But the new guy, Mr. Smith, he knew all of our names within days. He shook everyone's hand before he saw his own office.

"My name's Mr. Smith," he said to each one of us. "What's your name? What do you do?" He didn't smile as I stood and answered his questions.

"I'm David," I said to Mr. Smith. "I'm mapping the annexation."

It's a big job, the annexation north of town. The biggest map I've made, and I've made a lot. I make maps all day long. Street maps, sewer line maps. Neighborhood maps. Legislative and Congressional district maps. I like to think how the maps I make, if stretched big enough, would fit perfectly on top of the world, tree for tree, street for street, house for house. And that makes me think how maps are the world, if smaller, and maybe there's a smaller me making smaller maps in that smaller world. And maybe there's a bigger me, and I'm simply in his bigger map. It's a good job, but it's just a job for my cubicle mate, Jeannie, who says, "Why is such a handsome guy like you so into making maps?" She's nice, older and married, and she maps crime for the cops. An accountant of mischief, plotting data points where we get robbed, attacked and even murdered. A map of miscreants.

"What's your last name," Smith continued.


"Clean your desk, Conover." He walked away.

And I did. I made the paper glaciers more like skyscrapers, straightening their edges and corners. I plowed out the valleys with my hands, the paper cups crashing into my trash bin. Every stray piece of candy I found, I put in a jar, up for grabs.


One street on my map is simply beautiful, a work of art. The houses are big and new and the developers of the neighborhood put a park running down the middle of the street for a mile. The grass is green in the satellite image, and the trees just saplings. But imagine, in 50 years those trees will be full grown and leafy. I think about myself walking down that street when I'm old, looking up. There will be a new satellite up there, clicking away. A new mapmaker.

"What's the ETA on the annexation map, Conover?" Mr. Smith, out of nowhere, says to me.

"I'm not sure. The borders aren't quite right yet. There's one area that's still being disputed by the county…"

"I need that map by the end of the week," he says, cutting me off and turning 90 degrees. "And I thought I told you to clean that desk." It is clean, I think, and he walks away.

The next day, everyone in GIS got two emails. The first one announced the mayor and his staff of seven needed more room than just half of the fourth floor. Since we were the only department to share the floor with them, we would be the ones losing it.

"Asshole," Jeannie, my cubicle mate, says under her breath, absently plotting murder on a map.

The second email had a list of new rules from Mr. Smith.


Re: New GIS Rules


I have been impressed by the hard work we do, but I have devised some improvements for the department.

First, men will wear a shirt and tie, and woman will wear business wear. We are professionals and represent the City at all times.

Second, all desks will remain clean. No stacks of paper. No paper coffee cups. No food scraps. This is not the waste plant, or the recycling center.

Once in place, these new rules will make us work more efficiently, and we'll work better with one another.

Mr. Smith

Cc: Mayor's Office


I wear a shirt and tie, so no biggie there. But that second rule? I turn to Jeannie but she ignores me and just types away.

Mr. Smith's door is open, but I knock on it anyway.

"What is it, Conover?"

"I just wanted you to know that," I pause, not sure why I came here, edging toward his desk. "To know that I'll keep my desk clean."

"Good," he says. His own workspace is immaculate. The only thing on his desk is his computer monitor. No phone, no pen, no papers, no stapler, no tape dispenser, no calendar, no lamp, not even a keyboard.

"But there will always be some maps on it."

"We have new rules, Conover," he says. "Read them carefully."

"I did," I say, leaning the front of my thighs on the face of his desk for support. I want to take his wastebasket and empty it on his desk and lap. But I look and it's empty so I back out of his office without saying a word.

The rest of the day I spend making minute adjustments to the annexation's border, only to undue them again. I zoom in and out of the map, from the greatest heights to the point where the map gets blurry and pixelated, where I can see everything's shadow. In that long, skinny park, two women are walking, their shadows springing from their bodies at a sharp angle. It gives me no joy. I decide to leave work, desolate of mind, desk in the same state, no progress on my map. But Mr. Smith beats me to it.

As he walks by my desk, he rubs the tip of his pointer finger along its surface. Then he looks at me, says nothing and walks away, out the office door.

I squeeze my eyes closed, clench my fists and push my balled-up hands hard into my soft, shut eyes. Just like since I was very young, when I push hard enough on my eyes I see things. I fly through unidentifiable, monochromatic landscapes before stopping, every time, at an orange, molting space. I think I see a man sitting there peacefully, at a river's edge or feeding pigeons or at his desk. I don't know. But he's there every time.

When I pull my fists away and open my eyes, the world comes into sharp relief.

Jeannie is standing and ready to go home.

"Did you hear?" she says. "The mayor wants another thousand square feet. And you know why? He's moving that huge tabletop 3D map of the city from the lobby up here. Can you believe it? We made that damn map and he's screwing us for it."

Behind her I can see workers trying to dismantle the modular walls where our department's space abuts the mayor's office. There are a half dozen of them, examining the wall and looking confused. I do the calculations in my head. With that much more space, the mayor's office would occupy two-thirds of the floor. We'd have just a third.

A man should find a small, private space where he can weep freely. Here at my desk, near the encroaching wall of the mayor, is not that place. I want to go to the basement, to the map archives.

I push away from my desk, and see it as it is: a frozen steppe, a windblown tundra, an expanse of permafrost devoid of life.

On my way out, I go up to the workers.

"Hi," I say. "Are you guys moving this wall?"

"Yeah," one says. "It's supposed to move, but the guy that knows how to move it retired last year. So we're trying to figure it out."

"Any clue?" I ask.

"No clue. It's stuck here, just like a real wall."

In the basement, the hanging bulb and its chain are still swaying when I began to cry. Rolled up maps a hundred years old are everywhere, their musk lodging in my nose even as the snot drains out.

It takes a few minutes but when the tears dry, I find the oldest map of them all in this collection. It's from the mid-nineteenth century, decades before the city was incorporated. I unroll it on the tall wooden table in the middle of the room.

Somehow, I've never seen this map before, and it's totally, beautifully flawed. I love it. It isn't a view from up above, but kind of a crooked bird's eye view, from the southwest. Its maker took pains to draw trees along the streets and flowing blue water in the river, houses here and there. It takes a minute, but I find the spot where City Hall is now. According to this map, the plot used to be a good 50 feet lower, right on the river's edge instead of high above it, like it is now.

I dig through the maps, trying to solve this mystery. Soon enough, I find one from the 1930s that gives me my first clue. I laugh out loud. This used to be the dump.

I rifle through newer and newer maps. The dump was here for generations, slowly collecting the waste of our city's people. From the leftover food of the grandest parties in the biggest mansions, to the broken toys of the poorest children in the shabbiest neighborhoods.

As the junk accumulated, it became a bigger and bigger mountain. Within a generation, it seems, the mountain of garbage threatened to be the tallest artificial structure in the city. So what'd city leaders do? Flatten it out, cover it with dirt and build City Hall right on top of it, sometime in the 1960s.

Below my feet, below five stories of one of the city's grandest buildings, below the leering gaze of Smith and the larcenous pronouncements of the mayor, is a bunch of garbage.

I couldn't be happier. As I put the maps away, I see something in the corner that makes me even happier. Walls. Modular walls.

Upon examination, I see how they work. Very easily in fact, if difficult to surmise when they're in place.

On my way out, I pull the light bulb's chain, and feel the bulb's warmth.


The next morning, I'm tired. I've been up most of the night, but I'm elated. I only left City Hall once, early in the morning to get some coffee. The clean white paper cup sits on my desk. Since then, I've made great inroads on my annexation map.

When Mr. Smith walks in, he drops his briefcase and it pops open, spreading papers everywhere.

His office is gone. Where his door and bank of windows were, there's now an impenetrable wall — the same walls that once separated us from the mayor. They weren't that difficult to move. And now it's like Mr. Smith's office — poof — magically disappeared. I watch him scan the room, his mouth wide open.

"Not good," he says when his gaze reaches the mayor's office, his unobstructed view looking all the way across the building, all the way into the mayor's land.

From where I sit, I can see the mayor's tabletop, 3D map. I can see City Hall on it. And there's our floor, the fourth, and there's Mr. Smith's window. If only he could look through the tiny window, he could see a mountain of garbage enveloping his desk, trash I collected from every floor, every office, every public restroom before the custodians got to it. There's so much garbage, he wouldn't even be able see his desk. Just a mountain of trash. And there, next to Mr. Smith's window, is my window. From there, at my desk, if I squint hard enough through that window in that miniature City Hall, I bet I could see a man sitting there peacefully, at his desk.

BIO: Nicholas Deshais is a writer and journalist in Spokane, Wash. His nonfiction is the scourge of politicians, money men, and other power brokers throughout the Pacific Northwest. He hopes his fiction will have a similar effect. This is his first published piece of fiction.