pages The Line

by Ewing Campbell

Published in Issue No. 95 ~ April, 2005

The line, he kept thinking, is not a line or anything else except the asphalt pavement, which formed a kind of line and rose abruptly to meet his foot when he stepped forward and felt the earth turn beneath him. Maybe it was this motion that made him feel so out of sorts. He heard the blare of horns rising as cars approached from behind on the highway and went past, the sound shifting, decreasing, going away. Noise always had the effect of disrupting his concentration. Then again it might have been the flashing lights, blue to red, or the glow of headlamps dancing like ball lightning along the interstate. Something like that could throw him off too. And let’s not forget the inner ear, he wanted to say. The inner ear, if afflicted by an infection or some malfunction of the cochlea, could bring on vertigo, which was not quite disequilibrium and yet something like it. Not exactly mental and he wasn’t sad–just not able to walk the line that really wasn’t a line but something different, in motion, and infinite in nature.

You couldn’t see it, he kept reminding himself, the way you could see a chalk line. You couldn’t see it anymore than you could see molecules although that might not matter to those who wanted him to touch his nose with his eyes closed. Something like that anyway. Which he hadn’t attempted since childhood when playing a schoolyard game of standing on one foot and bringing a forefinger to the tip of his nose while keeping his eyes shut. That memory, the memory of how it worked, was a distant blur now, as were all his memories of all the other games he had mastered back when the world and he were young.

An evil wind was blowing his way, one that might tip him over if he did not lean into it or topple him if he did and tried, at the same time, to figure out why they were putting him through this routine. Well, maybe it wasn’t hard to figure, he whispered to his inner ear. Why else, if not to embarrass? And since that was the plan, or so it seemed, he’d just have to show them and, of course, everyone else that he could walk a line with the best. Even if the line turned out to be infinite, as he suspected it was. Because he had an eye for such ploys. And his eye hadn’t failed him yet. Nor would it this time, if he could trust his judgment, trained and honed in the National Guard, seasoned by counting the cards of sharpers in casinos and watering holes on Friday and Saturday nights, toughened –both he and his judgment–by going without sleep for days on end. Nothing like killing fiascos for putting a keen edge on what mattered most–namely, keeping up spirits and knowing how things ought to be done, resisting character assassination and dirty tricks by those who had not done what he had done or seen what he had seen. Nothing like it at all in the world. Motes of dust in the air. A pat on the back. Anything else, a given. Just name it and watch it fall short. Thoughts to shore up his flagging morale.

Light bounced off the car window on the driver’s side, and he saw himself, inadvertently, as a reflection in the glass. The sight wasn’t pretty to look at, to see, even if only by accident, because he didn’t recognize the expression on his face or like the desperation he saw there, given the video tape they were making of him trying to walk a line that was at best a thing of subjective extent and placement. The stranger he saw wearing that look and the suit–which he did recognize, to say nothing of the stagger–signified something incriminating. An official record of him unsteady and queerly looking for a line that wasn’t and would never be there on the shoulder of the road–or was it the shoulder of a ditch?–was evidence of some confusing sort, evidence actually more visible than the line they wanted him to walk. All of this reason enough, if he needed a reason, to be sorry he had seen the reflection.

Actually, he was all for killing the fiasco before first light. And more so after catching a glimpse of himself and tasting the bitter phlegm in his throat. He preferred, that is, to salvage fiascos when there was something worth saving, such as one last pull at the lees hidden from sight by rustic old wickerwork. And to do it pleasantly in a way that called for backslaps, compliments, handshakes, and a smile, which he hoped was not that awful rictus he had seen mocking him in the light that made a mirror out of the car window. But it vexed him, nonetheless, that some wanted to put him on the spot in so public a place. And what was the purpose, he asked himself, of public service in the first place if it led to treatment like this? The more he thought about it, the more it irritated him, even to the point of belligerence. It’s never paranoia, he was thinking, when someone’s out there trying to get you, trying to bring you down a notch because, let’s face it, that’s why they did these things in the first place, to see if you’ll topple one way or the other. And not knowing which way they expect you to lean, the not-knowing itself, could keep you alert as you raised your foot and put it forward toward where you anticipated the line was going to be at the moment the ground came up to greet your step and threw your body off center. Was it the Coriolis effect, this tendency to drift sideways from the earth’s rotational direction? Or something more sinister and unavoidable?

Yes, inevitable, anticipated, and yet a surprise in its sudden arrival, which caused him to pitch ahead, throwing his hands out in an effort to break the spill he was taking, feeling a rip at the knees of his favorite trousers, scraping the flesh from his left cheek and scuffing his nose, lips, and brow so that there was nothing left but to make the best of a situation by searching about on the ground for the line he had missed or maybe tripped over. Now on all fours and still seeking the line, he felt strong arms grip, then lift him, guiding him to the back seat of a waiting sedan. Reporters had a word for it, but it was something he couldn’t name right then except after a fashion by forming on his lips, now bruised and cracked by the impact, a rhetorical question that went very much like, “What did you expect under the circumstances, surrounded by unfriendly forces?”

Impossible to resist, the Coriolis force. Numbers too great, as well, for him to continue the struggle. Passive resistance, he’d make that his fallback strategy. He was glad to be lying on the seat with his eyes closed. Otherwise he might have to face the prospect, the strain, of the world folding in on itself. Besides, he could find physical comfort, there on the seat, and an interlude wherein he could gather his thoughts. Thinking, the missing element in so many defeats, was the final necessity in the fight for survival. Let them have a go at him, then, do with him whatever they wished, he concluded, determined to endure, for there was the report of a labyrinth, at least he thought there was one, consisting of a single straight line, on which better men than he had stumbled and lost their way. For you could trip or get trapped in a labyrinth. Make a misstep or take the wrong turn and things could happen, like the situation he was facing right then.

He was musing on that hazard when an idea occurred. Maybe next time they decided to put him to the test, they could find a labyrinth like that one, but one consisting of a single straight line visible, unmoving, and finite because if wise men, on approaching the problem, couldn’t find a solution, neither could he. At least, that’s what he wanted to say to the trooper or anyone else who might happen along. There was no line. So why not just let him get on down the road?

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Ewing Campbell writes and teaches fiction at Texas A&M University. His fiction can be found in recent issues of Georgia Review, and the American Literary Review, which awarded his Tauromaquia its 2002 fiction prize. A forthcoming collection of his stories, Afoot in the Garden of Enchnatments, will be published this fall by Rager Media.