In the Line for DeClerq

Michael Czyzniejewski

Sondra and Martin were waiting at the back. I entered the line behind them, but they insisted I cut ahead. I obliged. I couldn’t see the front of the line, where the great DeClerq was meeting their followers. I didn’t know why Sondra and Martin would let me cut. They wanted to meet DeClerq as much as I did. It’d been Sondra who turned me onto them way back when. Maybe she was being nice. Maybe she and Martin knew something I didn’t.

The line didn’t budge. DeClerq was infamous for this. Sometimes they’d shake a hand, kiss a baby, then they were off; sometimes they’d chat for hours, even leave with someone for a while. DeClerq liked to say that every encounter called for something different. Sometimes you needed a selfie. Sometimes you needed to meditate in the woods. I hoped I needed to meditate with DeClerq; I strived to emanate a needs-meditation vibe. All encounters were determined by DeClerq. I remained hopeful.

Sondra and Martin let everyone who came into the line ahead of them. Soon, I couldn’t see the back anymore. Suspicion grew into paranoia. Eventually, I decided to find out what they were up to.

“What’re you doing back here, Jonas?” Martin asked when I returned.

“Why do you keep letting people in front of you?”

A boy approached. Sondra and Martin let him pass. “We believe our meeting with DeClerq will take its most complete shape if we remain at the end.”

“That could take days.”

“Worth it.”

I had probably added hours onto my own wait by leaving my place. In for a penny, I thought. “I’m staying back here with you.”

Sondra and Martin conferred.

“All right,” Sondra said.

“Welcome,” added Martin.

Arrivals continued. We let everyone go ahead. We slept in shifts, one of us always awake to hold our place at the end.

During my second watch, Sondra woke and asked me to lie with her. Everyone else was asleep. Sondra put her hand under my shirt, in an intimate way. I asked her what she was doing. She kissed me. I’d been pure and was scared but wanted to be with Sondra. What better place than with DeClerq so close? I’d consider it a tribute. I hoped they would, too.

The next morning, a note was passed down the line: DeClerq loved us all. The note was timestamped over three hours earlier—three hours for the note to reach us.

“Won’t be long now,” Martin said.

I didn’t know on what he’d based this.

Later, rumors spread that DeClerq began mass-greeting, sending away over a hundred disciples at once, posing for panoramas. The line didn’t move.

I was getting hungry and all of us needed water. Almost on cue, golf carts with water and crackers emerged. We asked the drivers how far we had to go. They ignored us, abandoning their carts: They were all out of gas.

The third day, I doubted Sondra and Martin’s strategy. A woman named Polly said she wanted to be last, standing behind Martin. Sondra explained we were there first so we had the right to be last. Polly ignored her. Sondra pushed Polly down. When Polly got up, Sondra shoved her forward. Polly acquiesced but directed all new visitors in front of her. Three became four. I considered whether Sondra and Martin came together or if one of them was first and the other happened along, like Polly and I had.

That night I moved next to the sleeping Sondra and put my hand under her shirt. She woke, demanding an explanation. I told her I liked what we’d done and wanted it again. She suggested I ask Polly, perhaps Martin. She said she was likely already pregnant with my child, that we could present that to DeClerq. We’d be famous, become part of his inner circle, ours the first baby conceived at this historic gathering. Later, we discovered conception was a somewhat common occurrence. Furthermore, eleven babies had been born in the line and fourteen people had died. We’d still tell DeClerq what we’d done. I’d hate to meet them and not have at least that. I pitied anyone who didn’t.

I remembered the woman in front of me when I’d first arrived, in the yellow dress with the red flowers. She’d no doubt met DeClerq by now. I comforted myself with the knowledge that DeClerq was still in my future. Maybe that was the strategy, keeping the highlight of life ahead of you, anticipation superior to memory.

When it happened, I couldn’t remember how many days we’d been there. I heard Martin weeping and I turned to see him embracing DeClerq.

DeClerq was just as glorious as I’d guessed. Photos and videos did them little justice. I fell to my knees.

“Do you mind?” Martin said, handing me his phone.

I snapped as many photos as DeClerq allowed. Martin took his phone back, triumphant, then sprinted off.

Behind DeClerq, I spied the woman with the yellow dress with red flowers at the front of the line. We’d wrapped around, the end of the line meeting the front. But what had we wrapped around?

Polly informed DeClerq she was his daughter. DeClerq declared this impossible but embraced her. Polly wept, then stumbled away.

Sondra told DeClerq she had conceived a child in his honor. DeClerq pressed his palm to her still-flat belly, closed his eyes.

“That’s indigestion,” DeClerq corrected. “I’m sorry.”

Sondra wept. DeClerq invited her to mediate in the woods. I tried following but DeClerq stopped me, said my time with him was done. I asked for an embrace and DeClerq said his rejection of my request for an embrace was what I needed, not the embrace itself. His wisdom made me weep.

Nearby, DeClerq’s books and CDs were for sale. T-shirts and bumper stickers, too. I purchased one of everything, even items I’d already owned—I’d already owned it all.

Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of four collections of stories, most recently The Amnesiac in the Maze (Braddock Avenue Books, 2023). He is Professor of English at Missouri State University and serves as Editor-in-Chief of Moon City Press and Moon City Review, as well as Interviews Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.