There is a beggar in the town of Phen who draws lines in chalk on the pavements and the streets. He preoccupies himself with this task each morning, battered and disheveled from a night in hay bales off the city wall. Each morning, he begins his line at the main market square and draws almost straight, but often sagging, towards the house of a young lawyer. He then skips to the next block, his chalk crossing the street and continuing where a few shabby tenements have been erected by the city. His peculiar habit is scorned by the coroner, who is almost as equally preoccupied with erasing these chalk lines, the town being small and bereft of criminal enterprise.
There is a rumor that the old man draws the line of his grandfather’s farm, that before the surveyors planted the town, with its straight lines and grid, that a low, undulating field gave way ever so briefly to a magnificent barn – proud and prosperous. The story is not corroborated in the archives, and there are other stories still about the strange chalk line – a disorientated astronomer fallen out of luck; a lover who traces the path of his dead wife from the shop, cutting through the lawyer’s house- once an open lot.
Lines such as these balk at the grid, but they are everywhere. The beggars’ line runs parallel to the glance that passes each morning between the rival boys living diagonally across the street from one another. The tire marks from an accident two years ago are still apparent and curving wildly at the intersection. Within the straight lines, curvy ones flourish too, and the gardens of the well-to-do have recently taken on a more naturalistic mode.
There are those that believe the grid of Phen has shaped the minds and habits of its inhabitants, that its citizens submit too firmly to the ideologies of their politicians, that their minds are more rigid than elsewhere. They say that the beggar is free, that his lines protest the modularity of their city and the datum of their lives.
Yet it is the beggar who surveyed the grid of Phen. His instruments failed him, though few notice, so in persistent shame and despondency, he draws the lines of the grid as they ought to have run their course.