I was parked on a stool at the Harvard Gardens when the kid came in. Evie, the waitress, pointed me out to him. He wandered over, picked up some beer nuts from my bowl, and whispered, “You’re a finder, and I need to find Tulia.” I squinched up, looked away, and said, ” I think there’s a Trulia, but I never heard of Tulia. I focused on the bubbles in the glass. “Look it up on a map. I don’t give directions.”
After ordering beers for us, he mentioned that he knew there wasn’t a Tulia, but he needed to find it. Shit, I let him buy me a beer, and now I’m listening to him spout about some place in NJ that doesn’t exist. Why me? Because I’ve been to Tulia and a dozen other off-the-map shithole towns you’ve never heard of. I usually try not ever to find them again.
Places like Tulia tend to look, act, smell, and work like any other place; just don’t try to find them on the map. Maybe they’d been there at one time, but they slipped off the edge at some point. Kids grew up, married, and died in places like Tulia. They worked in the mill, diner, or carwash. They went to the local schools and had never been to the state capital.
“You don’t want to go there. It’s dull, boring; you can drive through it in five minutes.” He looked at me, ” I’m from Tulia, and I want to go home.”
“Kid, you escape one of the dullest places in the lower forty-eight, and you want to return to work in the diner?” I knew there was more, and he soon said, “It’s about my girl.” Now he had my attention.
So let me tell you a bit about the spots that land off the map. There is always something a bit off about them. Roads run around in loops, so it’s hard to leave. History has slightly different twists. Odd things happen, or people are a bit weird. There are one or two of these places I’d love to revisit but know I’ll never find. Like North American Brigadoons, they are lost along faded-out bits of the Interstate system. One of those was Tulia. I’d spent over a week playing every night in a small coffeehouse, enjoying being lionized by folks who’d never been as far away as Trenton and who imagined New York City as twice as glamorous as it could ever be. Okay, it was the girls. One in particular. So when he said it was about his girl, I knew I’d try to help him. A sentimental sucker I’ve never been, but some things you never forget. I hadn’t meant to leave Tulia forever; I’d just ventured out for a fast run to Philly but found that I couldn’t get back.
” I can’t promise we’ll find it.”
You can’t leave bright in the morning for a place like Tulia. So you go in the evening, a backpack full, guitar in hand, and hat on head. Don’t worry about the route; that won’t matter if you hit it right. It depends on the rides. You won’t accept just any ride. If he’s heading for Philly, turn it down. Take it if he offers to let you off at the Black Horse rotary; take it. That rotary is a departure point for the obscure.
We hit the rotary at midnight, walked to the third exit, and started walking. I figured the kid was from there, and he’d be my compass; I wouldn’t have to decrypt any excess clues or distractions. I’d just let him be my guide back. Finally, around four AM, the right turnout appeared. It even had a sign – Entering Tulia, population 4,682. Perhaps the number was numerologically significant in some ancient Babylonian math, I wouldn’t know, but it struck me that this was strangely precise. Then the number seemed to glow, and I swore it changed, but my eyes were on the lights of a diner that appeared on the right-hand side. Breakfast.
I recalled the waitress and the cook from my last visit. She wobbled on her legs, and it was a wonder she didn’t spill my coffee. The cook hummed loudly along with the radio and chuckled, just as he had the last time. The kid was greeted by friends and hugged by the petite blonde who had missed him. I wandered out into a foggy early morning and sat on the edge of the old concrete planter, amazed that I’d returned. I was tuning my guitar when a battered old Ford pulled up, and out of it stepped Roxanne. I smiled, she smiled, and I said, ” Honey, I’ve missed you so much.” Roxanne hauled back with that big old purse and belted me a good one in the face. “Wes Carson, you lying, no good SOB…”
It was about 8 AM when I woke up in the alley behind the Harvard Gardens. My jaw ached, and my shirt had a bloodstain from where a buckle on the bag had caught my lip. Damn, that woman never forgets and never forgives.