Lester Thees is a writer who lives in Ansonia, CT.
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Lines and Arrows
by Lester Thees
Tom Hanson thought of himself as a reasonable man. He wasn't prone to fits of pique over minor problems. He wasn't a constant complainer about the way his tax dollars were spent. And he certainly wasn't one of those loud-mouthed maniacs who felt that the sole purpose of government was to cater to his every whim. He just wanted a couple of arrows painted below the double traffic lights at the intersection of Farrel and Kneen Streets, so motorists would know which lane was for turning, and which lane was for going straight. Simple. Reasonable. Not too much to ask. But after a dozen frustrating phone calls, two unanswered letters, and a near collision, he finally decided that some red tape needed cutting and Tom Hanson was the scissors.
He found the Department of Public Works, more or less by accident, after driving around for an hour on the outskirts of town, searching for the address on Jeremy Swamp Road. The building was a three story, sand colored brick monstrosity that Tom figured to be one of those Depression Era alphabet program projects. The window trim was done in an industrial dark green, the roof was as flat as a Dust Bowl prairie, and the whole structure seemed to list slightly to the left. A gray metal wing, the size and shape of an aircraft hangar, was tacked onto the side like somebody realized at the last minute that they'd need someplace to keep the city trucks.
After parking his car in front of the building, Tom was heading for the front door when he heard a voice call out, "Help you, Mr.?"
Tom looked around and spotted a heavyset, overall clad man hunkered down next to the garage, tinkering with some big, complicated looking piece of machinery. He seemed so absorbed in his work, that Tom wasn't sure who had spoken, until the man repeated, "Help you?"
"Yes," Tom said, feeling funny talking to the back of a bent over head. "I'd like to speak with someone about a hazardous condition."
"Police Department's downtown," the man said, still without turning around.
"No, this has to do with a dangerous road condition," Tom explained.
"No, it's just that ... "
"No, nothing like that. There's this ... "
"Leaky water main?"
"Arrows!" Tom yelled in frustration. "I want some arrows painted in an intersection!"
"L. and A.," the man said, calmly.
"Elinay?" Tom asked, puzzled.
"Right. You want L. and A.. First floor, stay to the right, third hallway on the left, all the way to the end, room fifty seven."
"Thanks, thanks a lot."
Tom left the man alone with his sidewalk surfacer or asphalt spewer or whatever it was that was so fascinating, pushed open the glass door, and entered the building. He turned to the right, trying to remember the rest of the directions, wondering how such a small town had developed such a huge bureaucracy.
The place seemed to be a rabbit warren of dimly lit passageways, shadowy staircases, and dark wooden doors, but after a couple of dead ends Tom found what he thought was the correct corridor. He hadn't passed another soul since entering the building and, as he made his way down the long hall, footsteps echoing off the tile floors and unadorned walls, Tom began to suspect that most of the offices were empty. When he reached the end of the passage he read "Dept. of Lines and Arrows" on the door and finally understood what the guy outside had meant.
Tom wasn't sure if he should knock or just go right in, the door offering no clue whether it opened onto a waiting room or directly into someone's office. Not wanting to barge into a private space, but not wanting to appear a fool to a room full of people who'd had the sense to let themselves in, he compromised by tapping so lightly that he hardly heard it, himself. There was a muffled sound from within, as if someone had slid shut a drawer. He was congratulating himself for not bursting straight in, maybe catch some poor guy thumbing through a magazine when he was supposed to be working, when a barely audible voice said to come in.
Squaring his shoulders and sticking out his chin, Tom girded himself in the aura of a man not to be trifled with. He swung open the door, with all the no-nonsense confidence he could muster, and strode inside.
He thought at first that it was a child seated behind the institutional gray metal desk, that perhaps he'd walked in on "Bring Your Son to Work Day". But then he noticed the impeccably tailored gray suit, the perfectly groomed black hair, the almost palpable air of authority projected by the pale faced little man, and realized his mistake.
"May I help you?" the man asked, smiling.
Tom cleared his throat, trying to compose himself, aware of how close he'd come to embarrassing himself, and answered, "Uh, yes, I'd like to register a complaint."
The small man sat silently, his smile growing into something just short of a grin, an expectant expression on his face, as if offering Tom a second chance to lapse into total idiocy.
"Well, not really a complaint," Tom amended. "More of a suggestion."
The man behind the desk waited, and Tom decided to try a different tack.
"Do you know the intersection of Farrel and Kneen?"
The man gave a barely perceptible nod, giving Tom the necessary encouragement to blurt out, "Arrows! I think there should be arrows there so people know what to do."
The little man's eyes seemed to light up, the smile spreading as far as his diminutive mouth could contain. "Aah, yes, arrows," he practically purred. "Lines and arrows are what we do here. Please sit down." He gestured toward the straight backed chair in front of the desk. Tom sat, relieved to be saved from the awkward position of hovering above his host, grateful to finally be making some headway in his quest for safer roads.
The man folded his hands on the desktop, revealing flawlessly manicured miniature fingers. "I am very pleased to find a concerned citizen, someone who shares our interest in orderly traffic flow. But let me reassure you, Mr., aah ... ?"
"Hanson. Tom Hanson,"
"Hanson, yes," the man repeated, removing a fountain pen from a breast pocket and making a note on a pad next to his telephone. "Felix Klein. At your service," he said, placing a palm over his crimson silk necktie. Tom felt as though he should shake hands, but Klein had already refolded his fingers onto the desk.
"Well, Mr. Klein, about those arrows," Tom began.
"Yes, of course. We are studying that very problem, while we speak, and will take the necessary action at the proper time." Felix Klein snapped a quick nod to his visitor, classifying the subject as exhausted and the interview as ended. But Tom Hanson wasn't quite done.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Tom wanted to know. "What's there to study? Why don't you just quit screwin' around and stick some goddamn arrows on the goddamn road before there's a goddamn accident and somebody gets hurt!"
Klein reared back as if he'd been slapped. His hands clenched so hard that the polished nails turned white, his lips compressed so tightly they almost disappeared, and something happened to his eyes that made Tom think of the time he'd surprised an old tomcat that had been living behind some stacked plywood in his garage.
The feral glitter in Klein's eye vanished as quickly as it had appeared, his face and fingers relaxed, and the smile returned full force. "We do not screw around here at Lines and Arrows," he said, primly.
"Then what's the big deal about sending a guy out with a bucket of paint and a brush?" Tom countered.
Felix Klein sighed, tilting his head to one side, as if dealing with a dense child. "I'm afraid it's not that simple."
"Then spell it out for me," Tom said, folding his arms across his chest.
Klein slid back a heavily starched shirt cuff and glanced at the watch on his right wrist. Tom was no expert, but he thought the man was wearing a stainless steel Rolex. Klein appeared to deliberate for a moment, perhaps calculating how much more of his magazine reading time he'd have to waste on this member of The Great Unwashed Masses that paid his salary. He seemed to come to a decision, stood up, and said, "Very well, come with me." He swung around the desk, breezed past his visitor, and dashed out the door.
Tom had no choice but to follow, trailing the little man down hallways, around corners, past dozens of closed doors. He was surprised by how fast Klein was able to move on such short legs, covering an amazing amount of ground with no apparent effort, while Tom was already beginning to breath hard after a couple of minutes. They made their way to a far end of the building, stopping finally at a huge, metal sliding door.
Felix Klein turned to face Tom and said, "We don't usually permit anyone other than Public Works personnel in this area, but in your case I think we can make an exception." Before Tom could make any comment, the little man yanked down on a handle and, with a casual flick of the wrist, sent the door sliding. The heavy steel slab made a noise like a freight train as it ran along its track, into a pocket in the wall. With a theatrical flourish of his hand, Klein announced, "Research and Development. Please step this way."
They entered a cavernous space that Tom assumed to be the interior of the hangar-like wing he'd seen from outside. Twenty or thirty people were scattered about the area, all busy working on various projects, none of which were comprehensible to Tom. The three men nearest him were ankle deep in big, flat cast-iron pieces that they were trying to assemble into something like a giant, metallic jigsaw puzzle. Another crew was hard at work balancing long, aluminum rods across the edge of a six foot tall concrete wedge. Tom watched as a woman wearing a bright yellow hard-hat manipulated oversized multi-color lenses on a device that reminded him of one of the instruments in his optometrist's office. He turned to his guide for some clue as to what they were seeing, but Klein merely spread his arms and said, "Now you see my point."
"Not really," Tom said, shaking his head in bafflement. "What's all this got to do with the arrows?"
Felix Klein glanced up at the thirty foot ceiling, as if for the strength to deal with fools, seemed to resign himself to another thankless task, and motioned for the other man to follow. He led the way to a corner of the structure where a craggy faced old man was standing next to a chalkboard, looking into a small telescope mounted on a tripod. Tom had seen surveyors using a similar device, and was pretty sure it was called a transit. Klein had a brief, whispered conference with the old man, motioned him to step aside, then turned to face Tom.
"Carl Gauss, one of our very best men, has been working on the calculations. Now, Mr. Hanson, your concern is arrows. Correct?"
"You got it," Tom agreed.
"Very well, then. Let us proceed to the crux of the matter."
"Arrows cannot exist without lines. Therefore ..."
"Why not?" Tom interrupted.
"Why not what?" Klein asked, confused.
"Why can't you have arrows without lines?"
Klein finally understood. "The arrows must be contained. In this particular instance, the arrows are to indicate the proper lanes for left turns, right turns, and proceeding straight." He raised an eyebrow to ascertain whether or not his guest was following the discourse. Tom nodded, impatiently.
"Then, of course, lines must be provided as lane demarcations," Klein explained.
"So go ahead and slap a couple of lines in, while you're at it," Tom said, raising his voice.
"Aah, if it were only that simple," Klein said, wistfully.
The volume of Tom's voice continued to rise. "Would you like to tell me why it's not that simple?"
"Certainly. Think back to your high school geometry class," Klein invited. "You might recall that a straight line extends indefinitely. Correct?" Tom raised a hand in agreement. "And an arrow is the convergence of three lines." Tom threw both hands up in surrender. "Now, consider the cave paintings near Lascaux, France. You're familiar with these prehistoric drawings?"
"I suppose so," Tom muttered, wearily. His chin rested on his chest, fingers slowly massaging his forehead.
"Then," Klein summed up, "you understand the problem."
"Understand the problem!" Tom shouted, his head jerking up. "I have no idea what the hell you're talking about!"
Klein seemed unfazed by the outburst. "Perhaps I can illustrate the complexities of the situation with some visual aids." Selecting a piece of chalk, he began sketching dots and lines on the blackboard. When he was done he faced his guest and said, "May I?"
Without actually touching him, he positioned Tom so that he was standing behind the transit. "Now, if you'll be good enough to look through the eyepiece, I feel sure that you shall arrive at a greater understanding of our dilemma."
Tom bent his knees and leaned forward, lining his eye up with the end of the instrument. He blinked a couple of times, moved his head side to side, but the only thing he saw was his own eyelash. He was about to ask if there was some trick to using the device, when Klein reached over and twisted a small knob on the side of the scope.
Tom hadn't known what he was expected to see, but he would never have guessed it would be anything like the spectacle he beheld through the glass. A vast, blue plane lay before him, perfectly flat as far as he could see. There was no sky to create a horizon, the smooth expanse existing in a void. Tom pulled quickly back from the eyepiece, straightened up, and peered over the top of the transit. There was the wall of the building, the guys with the big puzzle, nothing that could account for the view through the scope. He turned to Klein and saw an amused expression lighting up the little man's face.
"What the hell's going on here?" Tom demanded.
"You begin to see," Klein said. He seemed to anticipate Tom's next reaction "No, this is no hoax. No illusion staged for your benefit. Remember, I had no idea you were even coming here today." He pointed at the transit. "There's more."
Reluctantly, Tom took up his position behind the instrument. He hated to be made a fool of, but he was curious about what else there was to see. And it was just possible that he'd be able to figure out how the thing worked and expose this officious little bastard for the fraud he was.
At first, the azure plane was just the same. Then a speck of light appeared in the lower left quadrant of the scope. The bright spot zipped across Tom's field of vision, leaving a trail of light, like the tail of a comet, but perfectly straight and narrow. A luminous line. Another began, higher and to the right, shooting diagonally to the bottom of the eyepiece. As Tom watched, dozens of light particles were born, expanding into lines, criss-crossing the plane. Two of the specks grew quickly in size and brightness, and he realized that they were moving toward him, side by side, at an incredible rate of speed. The beams streaked closer and closer, until his circle of sight was filled with a dazzling white radiance. The lines seemed to flash past his head, blinding him, staggering him away from the scope.
Tom stood, bent over, hands cupping his eyes, afterimages exploding along optic nerves, his head feeling like someone had dynamited his brain. After a few moments the pain lessened, and he was able to open his eyes. He looked up, his vision blurred and cluttered with bright green and red floaters.
Felix Klein was staring at Tom as if he had come across some loathsome form of vermin that had invaded the sacred shrine of the Public Works building. He again pointed to the transit. "You're not done, there's more. Much more."
"You're crazy," Tom shouted, but Klein wasn't listening. A wave of his small hand brought four big men, surrounding Tom, pinning his arms to his sides. They dragged him back to the transit, held him in place before the eyepiece while Klein made more marks on the chalkboard.
"Do you think you can haphazardly toss around the very elements of the universe?" the little man asked. "Even primitive man understood that there is a one to one correlation between illustration and actualization. Do you have any conception of the consequences of manipulating geometric figures without comprehensive analysis? Of course not, you just want arrows. Well, we've furnished the lines, so now we're ready for the arrows. We mustn't deprive you of your precious arrows."
Felix Klein stepped away from the blackboard just as a pair of incandescent arrows surged at light speed from the lens, frying Tom's eyes and exploding through the back of his skull.
The men holding Tom's lifeless body turned to their boss. "What would you like us to do with him, Mr. K.?" asked one of them.
"Just throw him on the pile," Klein answered. "We'll be starting work soon on the new Grant Avenue overpass, and I'm looking forward to a lot of taxpayer support on the project."