The End of the Line
“Is this where the line ends?”“As far as I know it is,” answered the last man in the rigid chain of people standing face-forward one behind the other down the immeasurable passage of the dull grey corridor. With that answer Henry took his place right behind the man who turned his head forward again. At the moment of stepping into his slot at the end of the line, Henry officially joined the network as its newest member in the seamless uniformity of men and women standing in a domino formation. Where it began-- Henry could not begin to catch sight. He saw before him, just as everyone else within view saw before them, the countless backs of those in front continuing forward ad infinitum.
Minutes passed. The line stayed motionless, without the smallest flutter or strain in the neatly aligned human sequence, without even a modest sign of advance. Not a footstep or whispered sigh to liberate a trace of sound into the silence of the narrow corridor. With his body conformed to the harmony of the chain, Henry carefully controlled the outflow of his own breath, lest he permit the smallest sigh to pose a minor disturbance in the soundless passage. After about ten minutes of standing in perfect stillness, Henry fought hard against his impulse to exhale. The tension inside him mounted, his muscles trying to break free of the inertia. Impatience bottled up inside his head while all his outward aspects retained the semblance of calm. Then the frustration began to pour out its confession in tiny beads of sweat from the pores of his forehead until they enlarged into a single stream that very slowly oozed down the side of his face. Henry stifled his indignant breath, bottled it up with the last bits of his resolve, intent at all costs to maintain poise. Then, he felt it—the oncoming exhaust of his tortured frustration, composed of every tiny sigh that had aspired from his chest to his throat before being suppressed and blocked up in his innards. It groaned with irrepressible force, welled up vigorously, immune to the silencer of any conscious filter, channeled by an instinct of untamed angst, ready to purge itself from its physical trappings with maximum velocity and evacuate its shrill gasp of discord or else blow up with seething atomic rage. Henry’s self-control caved under violent pressure as the sigh puffed up from his chest through the windpipe and raced to the exit of his mouth, billowing toward its outlet into the world with all the exertion the man’s poor gut could drum up.And then it came out—in the form of a question. “Does this line ever move?”All at once the heads of the next four people ahead of Henry turned toward him. Straight-faced, solemn and sober expressions faced him, perhaps disapprovingly for his sudden inquiry. The man in front of him dryly answered, “Sometimes.”Then, like clockwork, the four heads rotated back to their frontward direction. All signs of alarm incited by Henry’s indiscreet outburst petered out into the stable contours of the human chain. It was as though it had never even been disrupted. And so, Henry proceeded to do the only thing that appeared reasonable in this situation. He waited in servile conformity, face-forward, in his position at the end of the line.Another ten minutes or so passed during which Henry’s head throbbed with an incessant whirl of thoughts that churned around and around in a repetitive orbit. His thoughts tangled together into a stark humdrum pattern that simply replayed itself with little variation. Yet each time the cycle would start over, its tempo and tone amplified with evermore excruciating distress. He lost track of how many cycles of this circling, meandering mess of crazed mental labor circled his head. A maddening mass, scattering, blending, fragmenting, shrinking, enlarging—but always in the same monotonous deadweight circular revolution. A brain wracked by unending silence, stillness, and waiting.A sudden seismic wave split from the focal point of tension in his head and a single slicing thought torpedoed through the rest of the cumbersome chaos. “Excuse me?” Henry asked the man in front of him, keeping his voice gently above a whisper, as he lightly tapped him on the shoulder. The man wrenched his head toward Henry, with a touch of annoyance in an otherwise blank face, as though he was in fact offended by Henry’s brazen audacity that went so far as to demand of him to execute a turn of his head and supply a ready answer, not just once, nor twice, but now even a third time. Of course Henry did not choose to unsettle this particular man without a small pang of guilt. There was no reason why this man in front of him should especially be harassed with his every little inquiry, except for the fact that he was the one standing in front of him in line. It would simply be unthinkable to ask anyone else. The man eyeballed Henry dimly while waiting for him to spout out whatever nagging question he had.“I’m just wondering if I’m even in the right line. I would hate to waste my time waiting in this long line only to find out I was waiting in the wrong line.”“Well,” the man replied curtly, “what line are you supposed to be in?”“I need this form stamped,” Henry answered, holding up his piece of paper for the man to see. “I was told to come here.”“There’s only one line here,” the man answered without looking at the paper. “This is the line.”Henry pushed the form a little closer to the man’s face, trying to force him to see the words printed in bold across the top. “Do you know anything about this form? Is this what you’re here for too?”The man’s eyes peered for maybe a second at the form and then glanced back blankly at Henry. “There’s no other line but this one. Everyone has to wait in this line.” After that, the man turned his head back into its former position looking straight ahead toward the back of the next person’s head.Time passed idly by while the line remained frozen, its units like statues frozen in their eternal pose.Then suddenly, a rustling swept into the sterile silence. From some indeterminate extremity at the other end of the queue a quivering rush flitted through the air. A current of motion had been detonated, which spread at once like a magnetic seism and jostled the human train into a bustling flurry. In perfect clockwork the parade of legs lifted into a march. All the individual units twitched and in single-file lockstep made one complete forward thrust.The line stabilized once again into perfect stillness. The next several minutes passed without incident when suddenly Henry rattled with shock from the tap of a finger on his shoulder. He turned his head to see a young dark-haired woman in a bland white dress holding a dossier.“Excuse me sir, could you tell me what you’re waiting here for?”“Why do you ask? It’s all the same line anyway. Everyone has to wait in this line.”“This line,” she repeated with her perplexing stare unabated. “Which line is this?”“It’s the line. What other line can there be?”“Well, what is its purpose?” she inquired skeptically. “Why are you standing in it?”“What’s the difference? We’re all part of the same line. Maybe we’re all here for the same thing. I don’t know, but it’s the only line there is, as you can see…”“I don’t see,” she replied flatly. “How do you know you’re in the right line?”“Because—,“ Henry began to grind his teeth now, “this is the only line there is.”The woman relaxed her shoulders and puzzled over him for a moment. “What are you in line for?”Henry sighed and just held up his document to her face for her to see. “That’s why,” he mumbled. “Are you in line now too?”“It doesn’t appear so. I need to find the other end of the line.”“The other end? This is the end of the line. You have to wait here.”“No. You’ve been misinformed. This is the front of the line.” A chilly draft languished in the air between the woman and Henry.“What? Are you kidding me?” The temperature shot up to a feverish pitch within Henry’s sweltering, sweat-strapped head. Yet her frigid look did not yield. Henry continued, “Sorry miss but who are you to show up and decide which end of the line is which. Of course that would make my day if this were the front after all, but don’t treat me like some dope. If you’re looking to get in line, you’re in the right place. At the very end…”“That’s impossible sir. You just showed me your document. This is where the line starts.”“Yeah and what the hell am I standing here for then? Like we’re all just a bunch of blind robots lining up for nothing at all.” Henry shook his head sorely at her, unnerved by her words, but even more so confounded by the unrelenting cast of her face steeled with total conviction. Her somber gaze and glassy eyes, which wouldn’t even so much as budge, frightened Henry. At last he just blurted out, “Don’t you see the way everyone’s standing?”“Yes. Everyone is standing the wrong way.”The chill in the air settled around Henry’s shoulders. He tightened up in his poise, locked into sheer bafflement. Despite the utter foolishness of what she said, he was somehow disarmed by the gravitas of her demeanor. Every particle of her solemn countenance betrayed alarming resolve, impervious to any hint of silliness which otherwise her words would convey. Henry almost chuckled but instead choked. Then he sputtered, “What are you talking about miss? This is the end of the line. The line is moving that way.”“I don’t see it moving.”“Well you missed it. It did move. Once.”“Then it’s moving the wrong way.”Henry stood dumbfounded and yet restrained by the woman’s sober expression. “Miss, I beg your pardon, but this is nonsense. I’ve been here a long time already. It’s completely absurd to say the line starts here. Everyone is obviously supposed to go that way… That’s where the line leads!”“Where?”“There!” Now the blood steamed into a dense furnace around his forehead as he pointed resolutely toward the other unseen end of the line.“Do you know what’s down there?”“Obviously—it’s where everyone’s supposed to go in this stupid, stupid, God-forsaken line. Why else would we all be standing like this, like an assembly-line of idiot toy soldiers!”“Have you seen the other end?”“No! How could I have? I’ve been standing here in my spot—at the end of the line!”“You’ve been misled,” she said matter-of-factly. “This is where the line begins.” With that she proceeded past Henry and strolled down along the side of the line. Henry watched her until she disappeared into the impenetrable recesses at the other end. Henry’s astonished gaze faded into a dull stupor. He shook his head and thought to himself, Futile. She’ll be back here any minute… Once she finds the end of her absurdity at the beginning of the line.The line remained stiff in tireless waiting. Every minute that passed left Henry’s expectation of the woman’s return stuck in an ever widening gulf. He stared down the line, confounded, his eyes frenzied with bewilderment.Foolish woman. Hopelessly misguided.After five minutes of her absence Henry’s head swelled in an aching, nagging, all-engrossing discomfort. There was nothing to put the woman out of his mind or quell the vexing effect she imparted.Could she still be trotting down to the end of the line? he wondered. Could this line truly be so long?Staring as far as his eyes could escort his view, past dozens upon dozens of heads progressively shrinking, the imponderable length of the queue waxed into a daunting immensity. A world tightly confined within the drab gray bowels of that unending corridor. How much of this line’s scope did his vantage encompass? How much further did this procession of dominoes extend? Beyond that deceptive vanishing point could there be a perpetuating continuum of human pawns stacked into a snaking linear file that stretched beyond the geometrically ordered plane of limits across the three-dimensional framework of terrestrial space into the impossible shadows of infinity? Focusing his eyes across the narrow tunnel of the queue where it tapered into its dim extremity, Henry’s field of vision succumbed to a dizzying vortex. It was like the warping projection that funneled through two mirrors facing each other: a never-ending series of identical reflections multiplying beyond the frontiers of perception.His eyes zoomed back to his desolate post, fixed in the yoke of his role as the final unit of the elongated machine, marooned within the airtight boundaries of indefinite waiting. He looked again, hoping to see that stubborn woman returning in defeat, disarmed of her former implacable poise, lowering her head in shame as she ambled past all the members of the line in servile degradation, ready for once and for all to bow to reality and resign impotently to her place behind him. He imagined the delight of witnessing her abject submission as she assumed his place as the new placeholder for that miserable station. The mental image fleshed itself in vibrant color and replayed the groveling act through Henry’s head with just enough pathos to coax him into a few moments of self-appeasing humor. He saw her figure remolded each time with a more vivid tinge of sorrow, all of her former self-assurance debased into unvarnished self-pity, desperate to conceal her as she strove to fight off a fit of tears. He could not help but tease out the scenario and enjoy for all the little sprinkles of pleasure it could give—the only plausible thing which could be exciting in his unlucky position, forlorn there at the end of the line. Yet no matter how feverishly his eyes sought the looming figure of the woman in the distance, no inkling of her materialized.Imprisoned in silence, strident shrieks shattered inside Henry’s head in cacophonous clamor. Splintering shards intersected into minute flashes of coherent thought.“What happened with that woman?!” Henry finally exclaimed, oblivious as to whether or not the belligerent blast of exasperation sounded off inside his head or discharged from his mouth. At once the fury of his boisterous utterance seized the attention of countless heads and riveted their expressions of condemnation toward him like a tribunal of peers. The man directly in front of him bore a most irritated grimace, signaling that Henry had now made one too many outbursts.“Woman?” the second man away asked.“Didn’t you see that woman who walked past you just a little while ago?”“I suppose. Maybe I did. What about her?”“Well… She had the big idea that somehow this here was the front of the line, or so she said. Looks like she went down to the front to cut in front of us all!”Several equally flummoxed faces gaped speechlessly at him. The flinty glare of the man right in front of him sank into an even gloomier shade as he shook his head with disapproval—not over the audacity of said woman, but the impertinence of Henry. “I don’t see what you’re getting all carried away about sir,” the second man ahead mumbled. “Nobody’s cutting in this line.”“That woman is an employee here,” the third man ahead announced.“An employee?” Henry asked. “What makes you think so?”“The way she was dressed,” the third man said plainly. “She was dressed like an employee.”“How do you know about what employees dress like here? Have you seen other employees?”The man blinked with an unchanging bland look. He glanced at the second man ahead of Henry and said, “She must be an employee.”Henry furrowed his brow and grunted. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he thought to himself. He peered down as far as could toward the other end of the line wondering if he would catch sight of the woman. Nope. No woman. And the line appeared evermore interminable and hopelessly stagnant.“Nothing makes sense!” Henry piped up indignantly. He eyeballed the other men ahead of him. “If that woman is an employee, then why did she say that this is the front of the line? If she’s an employee, why would she make such a thing up?”A chorus of bemused eyes beamed back at him. “And then if she’s not an employee,” Henry said, now speaking more to himself than the others, “why didn’t she come back here? Unless she did manage to—cut at the other end of the line.”The attention of the few men ahead of Henry faded into indifference and they just spun their heads back around, muttering a few words he didn’t even care enough to understand. In that single moment, he felt all the antagonistic forces that existed within the walls creep up on him like an inescapable nausea. Everything around him suddenly took on a menacing aura, like a voracious black hole that sucked up every inch of that corridor. Henry stood defenseless, ready to collapse unconscious into the quicksand of all that unthinkable absurdity, insoluble confusion, and unmoving misery of the queue.“I’ve had it!” a now savage Henry wailed. Now the six heads afraid in front of him turned, some simply startled and others just plainly disgusted. The contemptuous glare from the man directly in front of him looked at Henry with an excoriation that could have implied a death sentence by firing squad, electrocution, and gas chamber all at once.“Calm down,” the second man ahead admonished Henry.Yet the crimson flash fumed only brighter in Henry’s face with an eruption of sweat gushing from his glands. In a pirouette-like whirl he heaved himself around, unable to shackle his unrest. He kneeled over, gasping, throbbing, trying to collect himself. The bloody luster of his face slowly relaxed into a paler complexion.“I’m going,” he uttered, breathing heavily, “I’m going to see what’s down there. Down at the other end—the front of the line…” A wild glow now blazed from his eyes as his whole body straightened up, suddenly emboldened with resolution. He looked into the face of the man right in front of him, who still stared at him, with a face now more discomposed by shock than disgust. “Will you please hold my spot for me?” Henry asked.The man just looked back at Henry vacantly, without flinching, as if the question had no meaning. Henry then spewed out a breath of cold air and took a militant step out of the line. As he raised his other leg to complete the action which officially and by all technicalities would irrevocably disassociate him from the line, the third man shook his head grimly. “Don’t do it,” he warned. “You needn’t trouble yourself that way sir… Everyone’s got to wait here in this line. There’s nothing you can do to speed it up or change the procedure. You just need to wait your turn like everyone else.”Henry acknowledged the man with a distinct exchange of his eyes and then proceeded to maneuver his other leg, stepping outside the linear parameters of the unbroken line into no-man’s land. Henry plodded forward heavily, his whole body in a ferment of unshakable determination. He said as he passed the man who had been three people removed from him during his membership in the line, “I’m not gonna die waiting in this line.”As Henry marched forward with confrontational strides, focused directly ahead of him and heedless to the rest of the world, the members of the line watched him in bewilderment and let out some hushed words of surprise. Henry walked down, down, down along the side of the queue, tracking it to its unknown starting point. He walked for several minutes through the grey concrete arteries, passing hundreds of people in their serpentine locomotive, all armed with their single document on hand, their pattern never curving or deviating from impeccable straightness. Down that long monochrome corridor Henry defied the ranks of the line and pushed himself with increased vehemence toward his goal.Henry had crossed some untold sum of hundreds of human dominoes shuffled in statuesque harmony before he noticed a sudden variation in the composition of the line. One by one people were turning around him, toward the end of the line where he had come from. With the precision and tempo like the changing of a guard, the individual units of the line made 180 degree shifts in position. Somewhere from the opposite end the rotation signal had apparently been set off, unleashing a chain reaction which would inevitably reach the other end where Henry had once formed the final unit.“What are you doing?!” Henry cried. “Why are you turning around?!” No one answered him.Henry’s heart rate accelerated and he bolted forward, running along the line now where all the members shifted their positions. “For God’s sake, tell me what is going on! Why are you changing the line?!” Henry roared with uncontrollable fervor now, the scorching acidic gases boiling upward from his bowels saturated his blood in a firestorm.“The line goes this way now,” one woman in the line answered stoically.“Insane! You’re all insane!” Henry thundered. “Every last one of you imbeciles!” Henry charged forward at full speed, desperate to once and for all discover where this line ended or started… Or whatever.He darted past the long stretch of people who had already been planted in the direction facing him by the time he got there. Then, hundreds of feet away, at last he caught the decisive view of where the line began, or ended. The person at the very end stood face-forward in front of what appeared to be an iron-clad door.Nearly worn to his last breath, Henry got a last jolt of energy there before the image of his long-sought destination. No other feeling consumed him at that point besides a paralyzing overdose of perplexity.Henry approached the last member in the line who stared callously forward without even noticing him. “Excuse me!” Henry shouted in his face. The man sluggishly slanted his head toward him. “What is going on here?”“This is the end of the line,” the man mechanically responded.“The end of the line?!” Henry’s hands clenched tightly, wadding up the single document he held and his whole body strained as he pushed past the man to see the door behind him. The door was sealed shut, without even a knob or a button. Just a simple white sign that said in big black letters: CLOSED.The color melted from Henry’s face. He snapped. He threw his foot forward and banged it into the door again and again and again. Nothing came of his kicks but a short hollow ring after each one. He threw his head back and yelled out, “Will somebody tell me what the hell is going on here!”“Can’t you see sir,” the last man answered, “we’re waiting in line.”“What line you fool?” Henry shot back, raising his finger toward the door. “The line was going this way!” Henry turned and saw a number of faces staring numbly at him. “Was it not?!”“It was,” the last man said. “Then some woman came up here a little while ago and informed us that the line was now supposed to go this way.”“Woman!” Henry cried. “What woman?” “Some woman in a white dress,” the man answered. “She’s an employee I presume. She told us to redirect the line and then went through that door there.”Henry seethed and bristled. His face screwed up with so much mangling fulmination he couldn’t even put together words. He just banged his fist vociferously against the door again and again.“It’s no use sir,” the last man said. “You’re just gonna have to take your spot in line behind me here and wait like the rest of us.”“My spot is down there!” Henry barked, pointing with a shaky finger toward the other end of the line. “That’s where I came from, that’s where I was! Right at the very end of the line!”The man looked at him somberly for a moment. Then he said, “Well gee mister, that’s unfortunate. That’s the front of the line now. But you’ve left your spot in line, you can’t go back now. You have to wait here.”“Wait! Wait here! I’d rather wait in Hell!” Henry ripped the document in his hand in half and then tore the two halves into little shreds and flung them on the ground. Then he angrily began stomping off, going back the way he came. He trudged back down the path of no-man’s land, along the border of the line, fixing his eyes furiously ahead without paying a single glance at any person. He heard the laughter start from the end behind him and then advance in a domino effect to the other successive members of the line. One by one, each of them started laughing wickedly and maniacally. Henry refused to look back at them, but he could not put out of his ears the terrible ringing of that wicked laughter-- all of it directed at him.