- The Electric Battlefield Map
Off a street in baltimore, I found the electric battlefield map. I was nosing through second-rate secondhand shops, looking for an astrolabe—my latest antique obsession—and having no luck. I wanted to set the instrument atop the TV in a kind of postmodern pastiche. I had already turned the TV into a fishbowl and was regretting the cliché. I recently had suffered a nearly impossible loss; I was adrift, directionless, seeking to fill a void. That day I was late to meet a friend for a movie, but the friend and I hadn’t seen each other in ages, and I was expecting an awkward afternoon. That is why I had proposed the reunion take place at a theater. Afterward, over coffee or beer—it had been so long I couldn’t even remember if he drank—we would be sure to have something to talk about beyond our immediate selves.
So I admit I was dawdling when I stopped to peer down the crooked alley that wound between two tired old shops. The alley was so narrow that a man and a child could not have walked down it abreast; there wasn’t even a break in the curb to mark its presence. Above, the roofs of the buildings nearly touched, leaving the passage in long shadows pierced only by slivers of light, like a set from some lost silent film. I said to no one, “Here comes your somnambulist, Dr. Caligari. Make ready for your patient.” I chuckled at my joke. About halfway down the alley I could discern a great hanging sign that—above a black arrow—read electric battlefield map. That was enough to pique my interest.
Below the arrow was a door that led up an old winding stair. On the first landing I met an elderly rheumatic with a beakish red nose who suffered from what I imagined must have been catarrh. He sat at a wooden table with uneven legs; his arms were crossed, and he rocked the table slightly with each raspy breath. Admission was fifty cents.
Affecting a serious look, I scoffed at the price. “How do I know I’ll get my money’s worth?”
He said, “There are no guarantees.” [End Page 98]
I clapped my hands. “Well, my unintentional philosopher, there’s no arguing with that! I couldn’t agree more—you’ve hit the matter right on the head.” I laughed, harshly. “I’ll pay my way happily.”
He took the coins without comment, plunking them into a small, dented tin. Then he pointed up the stairs.
Five flights later, the steps ended at a low wooden door dotted with stickers that had gone green with age—wild horses mainly, plus a matinee cowboy clinging to the back of a fiery bucking bronco, like something from a child’s room in the 1950s. I twisted the knob and the door swung noiselessly inward, as if drawn by a slight vacuum that I had finally released.
I stepped onto a wooden balcony running the perimeter of a large, sunken chamber. Three ancient pendants dangling from the ceiling cast a feeble glow. As my eyes adjusted, I saw I was standing in a theater that slanted sharply down fifty feet to a hexagonal stage. A thin string stretched around the perimeter of the stage, making it look like a boxing ring for children or the giant board of a game no longer in fashion. The seats of the theater were tightly packed—far more cramped than in a modern auditorium—and I was glad to have the whole place to myself. I plopped into a seat halfway down one of the aisles, draping my legs over the row in front of me. The chair, covered with red velvet, was surprisingly comfortable, though the armrests—once plush—had been worn down to the iron.
From my seat, I could make out more of the stage. It was not empty, as I had first imagined, but instead was dotted by a great number of light bulbs. The bulbs were thin, dark, and in a variety of colors; each stood no more...