It wasn’t easy to find you. I had to go back in time.
You were a software engineer from Mumbai. “India is a lot like America,” you said, “with its great contrasts.” I asked you about places there, like the holy city of Varanasi, the tech-hub, Bangalore, and the tourist destination of Agra. You hadn’t been to any of them. But you had been to Dodge — Dodge City, Ford County, Kansas.
* * *
I seemed to be doing circles around where you were waiting for me. You were in an unmarked place on my phone’s GPS — a virtual no man’s land. While looking for you on my screen I thought about the uncharted, monster-dwelling oblivions on old sea maps, or a Nintendo game’s out-of-the-way world I’d haplessly stumbled into through some glitch. “I was just over there,” I said aloud, scrolling faster with my thumb back and forth over the empty landscape where you supposedly were — over to where I was being led yet again.
It was then I got the feeling I knew the monster that held you captive. Looking for you vividly recalled the experience of discovering these behemoths as a child. I watched clans of them set up camp just outside my 1950s neighborhood development. Before they colonized our woods, we played manhunt there; before they reshaped the land and diverted the runoff, we watched salamanders in the brook; before the vast drainage chambers were mapped, I got my dirt-bike stuck in rich, black mud.
Some one of a kind autumn day, just beyond our streets and just like that, I found myself at the foot of an incongruous mountain engrossed in wonder. I ditched my bike to climb it. Part way up I looked down upon my bike, wondering if I would ever need it again. At the top I dusted my pants and stood up, stunned. I panned across the vast construction site covering a world I once knew. I reprocessed what I was standing on — a manmade yet biblical mass of boulders displaced to make room for them: the big box stores.
Between me and an inevitable investigation of their lair — of the reserves of electronics that would enable sunny afternoons in a windowless basement — there lay a treacherous level of mangled flora, uprooted fully matured trees, piles of rolled up metal fences, and a slope of tank tread like an interstate on-ramp, which is what it would basically become. This was the evolutionary threshold between the polliwog in a cloudy stream, the remote control car on the linoleum store floor, and the computer program on a TV screen.
* * *
A loud truck changing its gears behind me brought me back to present tense; I was looking for you on the verge of a similar threshold, only years later. Awakened by this childlike sense of peril, I looked back at my car, and then turned to go find you.
Like I had done so many times as a kid, I crossed lanes of long white lines, jumped a barrier in the middle, and cut through a thicket of weeds to reach a fence, through which I might have some view of your predicament. I was grateful to see you hadn’t lost hope. You had that unmistakable pose which suburbanites discern as that of the utmost persona non grata — someone waiting for a ride. About a hundred yards off I noticed a point of entry from the service road I navigated earlier. “My car,” I thought, much like it was the bike I’d ditched as a kid.
* * *
You were three — father, mother and son. I asked if we were going to take the Cozy Coupe toy car your boy was sitting in. You looked at him, proud, and smiling. He stared back at me very seriously, like he was revving his engine. Hitched to the back of the Coupe was a wagon full of bottled water, and a huge vat of vegetable oil, and a case of Sprite. Nobody moved or spoke. I wondered if I’d forgotten to do something obvious like say hello. I clapped my hands once and went to work stock-piling water into the trunk.
I asked you if you liked that particular store. You moved your head in a circular, floating motion the way I have seen only the people of India do. “It reminds me of the Taj Mahal.”
* * *
You lived in Kansas for one year of high school. Your father was there for work. You went to the mall on weekends. The pictures you took of yourself and your new friends often had the mall in the background. One of your cousins back home asked you if the building in the pictures you sent had any significance. You told her it was a mall, what that meant, and that you gathered there once a week. When she came to visit, she wanted a picture of herself taken in the mall’s parking lot. The snapshot shows her with hands out and palms up, like she is “a model on The Price is Right” presenting something “magnificent.” You laughed teasingly.
Since you left Dodge, you hadn’t met another American who’d been there. You said that most people think of Dodge, “if they think of it at all,” like a Western, a movie, “a mythology.” You said, “That is America,” and like a foregone conclusion tagged it with, “a fictional story.” But you assured me I should go there, because, “It’s the genuine article.”
For the remainder of the ride you all spoke to each other in a language I didn’t know. When we pulled up to your building I helped you unload your stockpile. You thanked me for picking you up like I had done you a favor, and I appreciated that. I thanked you in the same way. You gave me something American that only someone from somewhere else could give me. I watched you and your family waiving in the rearview mirror.