Herein is the first part of Neumann's Journey: Neumann's departure.
Neumann’s Journey Part I: The Departure
Neumann was lost. Through no fault of his own, indeed, in spite of rather elaborate precautions, he found himself alone, at night, in a part of town he knew just well enough to avoid at night, alone or otherwise—an area in which it was his preference not to have any dealings at all, regardless of the time of day, and about which he consequently troubled himself to know as little as possible. The region’s manifest poverty and attendant disrepute were ample indicators of the qualities he expected to encounter and so rather than be distracted by the no doubt plenteous details of lewd and despicable behaviour, he’d chosen to arm himself with a wholesome and uninterrupted disregard. ‘Know thyself’ was his credo, and in this case he’d considered it sufficient merely to know how ill-equipped he was by nature to meet the dangers that inevitably lurked in such an uncouth quarter.
It was galling indeed to think that his prophylactic measures had failed him, but worse by far was the caustic fear of the consequences of those failed provisions. His stomach churned at the thought of having lost his way, and he began thinking anxiously of all that might now vanish in a careless moment. The distraction cured him, if only for a short time, of the compulsive gestures he had acquired even before the last of the daylight had abandoned him, and which until that moment he had taken to repeating with a frequency both fascinating and alarming to behold.
Heading a long list of things he now considered himself at risk of losing was his life, a rather improbable outcome to be sure, and, indeed, Neumann's intimate familiarity with statistics might have helped dispel the fear that he would be left for dead at the side of a road; murders, after all, were at historic lows. But considering the importance he attached to his role as keeper of his own skin, Neumann felt justified in emphasizing to himself and to the few who wandered near enough to hear him emphasizing all this to himself that the risk he was taking with his personal security was utterly intolerable. Besides, he had his doubts about those so-called crime statistics. Granted, no shortage of factions were vying to take credit for the city's sudden apparent safety, but Neumann expected any day to read a sheepish acknowledgement that the official depiction was indeed a fiction and that the true picture was as dreadful as he suspected, maybe worse.
In any case he had much to lose besides his life. The thought of prison rape inexplicably crossed his mind. He tried to shake the image from his head but found he could only cover one unpleasant thought with another and so went from worrying about loss of life to loss of limb to loss of—that disturbing image once again—to loss of time and loss of money, loss of liberty, loss of self-respect, loss of reputation.... He couldn't immediately recite all of the many things he knew he was in danger of losing for he was too agitated to compose his thoughts and the list came to a premature end. This frustrated him greatly as he imagined someone using it against him as evidence of the absence of dangers he knew were all too real.
Taking stock of this inventory of hazards kept Neumann from dwelling on the terrible implications. But with the failure of his first line of defence, he reverted to a recent habit of compulsively examining the paper he carried in his hand. At frequent intervals he would turn toward a source of light and, bending low enough to illuminate the carefully printed address and the carefully printed directions below it, confirm that he had misread nothing. Well aware that such indulgent behaviour was simply adding to the delay in reaching his destination he would quickly straighten up and hurry a few paces before the doubts could creep back and force him once again to seek the reassurance of his own handwriting.
The problem was that the directions were maddeningly unreliable. This of course wasn't Neumann's fault. He copied them down precisely as he heard them and even read them back for confirmation. If he wasn't so keenly aware of the incompetence with which most people pursued their affairs he might have suspected that the directions were intentionally confused—as part of some unfathomable prank or plot. North was confounded with south, road with drive; when directed to go four blocks and make a left, he would discover that he really had to go three blocks or five, or that he couldn't go left or that he had been led into a cul-de-sac. If he were looking for a street called Belcher it would turn out to be Fletcher or Bilgewater or something of such slight resemblance that only by an effort of the imagination could Neumann see how one might be mistaken for the other. The directions were so consistently flawed that when they did on very rare occasion prove correct (or even predictably muddled) he suspected a ruse.
The confusion, moreover, was not confined to those written instructions. Earlier in the day, before the sun had reached the horizon, and while his growing fear had yet to harden into a panic, Neumann gamely gathered his courage and approached a group of youths squatting idly in front of a convenience store, intending to ask if they knew the whereabouts of a street that continued to elude him. But before he could even frame the question, and with hardly a glance in his direction, the youths pointed back to the road along which he had just arrived, and almost in unison affirmed that he was to go two blocks past the lights.
Neumann was surprised of course, and not just with the choreography: sitting in front of a convenience store all day no doubt provided ample opportunity to rehearse the answering of questions from passers-by. Rather, Neumann could scarcely believe that he might have passed the street in question. And as he was predisposed to doubt the counsel, however well intentioned, of a loitering mob of schoolchildren, he resolved at once to seek confirmation from someone inside the store.
He had hardly managed to step past the youths before they jumped to their feet and warned him that the shop was closed. There was no particular menace to the action, but startled by the sudden movement, Neumann scurried to the door and, finding it locked, began pounding on it in a rather frantic attempt to attract the attention of anyone who might be inside. He had only to peer through the filthy glass, however, to see that while the lights were on and the sign said open, the shelves were bare and the building plainly unoccupied. Alert to the danger of turning his back to the youths, Neumann quickly swung around to face them. But they had evidently lost any interest they might have had in him, as they were crouched in a circle busily trying to unravel a cigar.
Neumann stepped around them and was ready to ask if they were certain about the location of the street he was seeking when he was again made to understand, this time by a gesture of the thumb, that he was to go back the way he had come. As Neumann was otherwise at a loss, he made up his mind to take such advice as was offered. The directions, of course, despite the uncanny synchrony with which they were delivered, proved as unreliable as the rest, and the disappointment exhausted the last of Neumann’s patience. He intended to reprimand the youths for their trickery and demand an explanation, and though he was interrupted every few minutes by the need to stop and consult his list of directions, Neumann carefully rehearsed the lecture he planned to deliver. By the time he retraced his steps, however, the youths were gone and the sign on the now darkened store said closed. It took another twenty minutes for Neumann to find the street he was looking for, two blocks past the lights, in the direction opposite the one the youths had indicated.
And so it went, street after street, until his nerves were nearly ruined. He reproached himself constantly for allowing such a crisis to develop. And though he could think of nothing that might have improved the outcome short of opting not to leave his home at all, he felt the insistent weight of personal responsibility and his search for self-blame was a welcome distraction from the peril of his circumstances.
He considered the alternatives. Had he taken a car it would almost certainly have run out of gas by now. In any case, he didn't have a car, and didn't know how to drive. He didn't have the money for a cab, nor a clue as to what he could have offered as a destination but the one that was printed on the paper in his hand, an address so unlikely to be correct that he might as well have had a taxi take him to a street at random. A bicycle would have conveyed him faster than his feet alone, and he could have borrowed one, perhaps, but the streets were in such a shameful state of disrepair, and so deficient in even the most rudimentary illumination, that the risk of an accident must certainly have outweighed whatever small advantage a bicycle brought in terms of speed.
Nevertheless, who could he point the finger at for pressing obstinately onward—when it was obvious that his instructions were consistent only in their unreliability? Despite Neumann's growing hatred for the anonymous voice that led him to this impasse, it seemed he only had himself to blame for being there still, at that very moment, and not at home among the reliable companionship of an elderly cat and the peerless comfort of his reclining chair. The poignancy of his predicament drove him nearly to the point of incapacity, and even when it appeared that his destination was at long last within his reach, it remained uncertain whether he wouldn't first suffer a complete emotional collapse. The tremendous strain left him vulnerable to the blubbering self-pity he had long despised in others. A low groan that had been issuing from his throat abruptly took form.
“Why me?” he whimpered at the empty boulevard. It was not a question, not a genuine enquiry, but a protest. And though no one was around to hear those wretched words, Neumann knew they had been uttered: aloud and in the snivelling, plaintive tone of a child unwilling to accept the burden fate saw fit to impose. He was deeply shamed by the weakness of character his words revealed. Why him? Why was he out there, risking his life on this mad expedition? Need. Need drove him to the streets. His own need. The need for money. Certainly it wasn't for anyone else's benefit that he endured this terrible anguish, and if he had been misled, it was a deception made possible only with his own complicity. Yes, even ‘need’ was too extravagant a word for his condition. He was propelled by greed, and the sudden recognition filled him with such profound self-loathing that he wished for death. But even in that, Neumann wryly observed, he would be obstructed, for there was nothing on those empty, crumbling streets that even threatened to put him out of his misery.
Go on to Neumann's Journey: Part II