Early, too early, sudden alarm blaring, we swim up through the dim softness of sleep and we are awake. Breakfast in the dark, no coffee, bag packed and out the door into the underwater predawn light, the oaks and dogwoods paper flames against the slowly brightening sky. The air smells of rain, a cold wind blowing out of the east. A pile of faded oak leaves skitters across the not-yet-puddled sidewalk, the wind carrying tiny reminders of the season past us as we walk.
To work, coats and slacks and boots moving through the spritzing drizzle to bright fluorescent lights and flickering screens. Steve greets us on the way in, bright, motivated, the steady drone of overhead lights and central air fading beneath his conversation, did you see the game last night, hope the weather clears soon the kids want to go apple picking, when can you have that report on my desk, we have deadlines to hit. We wonder about Steve. A wife and two young kids, PTA and all that, always doing something and he’s always so cheerful about it. It’s unnatural. Suspicious.
He sets the pace, leading us as we spend the morning shifting pretend valuable money around a make-believe system, carrying fictions from column A to column B to determine column C. What happens once we get to column C? It doesn’t really matter, somebody will use column C for something else and eventually it will mean something to someone. We want to keep up, want to contribute. We are abuzz with direction and energy entirely disproportionate to our tasks for the first hour. Coffee and the occasional drive-by from Steve get us through the second. The direction and energy are gone by the third.
We take lunch early, go for a midday walk. The rain is falling properly now, but the weather does not deter us from our escape. Our boots clomp satisfyingly across the liquid sidewalk, tiny umbrellas failing to keep us dry but succeeding in clearing our heads, the comfortable antirythmic patter of rain on our ineffective nylon shelter a soothing rinse for our minds. Warmth in the cold grey rain, a passing look from a stranger, unspoken communion casual in its accidental vulnerability, its incidental authenticity. Time skips and jumps in the muted daylight until it’s time for us to return to the artificial, to Reconcile Funds and send Interoffice Memos and update Urgent Notes.
Inside, the fluorescents aggravating instead of dulling, conversation muted in the post-lunch doldrums, all of us pretending to work but we’re only marking time until we can go home. Or maybe not — Steve is urgent, working, carrying our labor when we can’t because we don’t know how or won’t because we’re too lazy. He’s giving encouragement where he can, offering help where needed. He should be annoyed with us, and maybe he is, but he doesn’t show it. He welcomes the work, welcomes the effort, and as long as the work gets done he doesn’t seem to mind doing it himself. It’s unnatural, suspicious. Who is this guy, who doesn’t drag, doesn’t make mistakes, doesn’t worry what it’s all for? What does he know that we don’t? Or is it the other way around?
We finally break and ask him how he does it, why he does it, day after day. He gives us a confused look, says this stuff needs to get done. The world turns on the artificial, the artifact enables the authentic, people supervising supervision ad nauseum to allow others to do something else, something important. Does that make the urgent inanity of the office, the memos and spreadsheets and countless hours devoted to decimals and pixels, noble? If so, our hero wears Dockers and a stained plaid tie. Steve knows what it all means to him, and that’s enough.
Somehow the day ends, final memos sent, spreadsheets collated and numbers triple checked, Steve already out the door because he finished his work, and some of ours to boot, on time. Bags packed, jackets zipped, and out into the cold. Walking home, or to happy hour, or to the gym, the light fading as the sun takes a breather for its return trip tomorrow. The rain is gone and the clouds scud across the darkening sky, hiding then showing then hiding the emerging hard lights of the waking stars. The murderous wind chases us onward as it dries the puddled pavement and pushes brittle leaves into the river on its way to the ocean. We hurry along, breaking leaves underfoot to mark the mileage.
We’re at happy hour buying rounds for each other, shouting conversation, or sweating it out on the treadmill, or at home in sweatpants cooking dinner and pouring wine, movie playing and none of us paying any attention because we’re lost in ourselves, lost in each other. Talk of house hunting, talk of vacations, talk of getting a dog because it’s time the kids learned some responsibility.
Time skips, jumps, and starts again and we’re stumbling home, or already into bed. We think of Steve, doing the same somewhere, happy and looking forward to tomorrow, and we wonder about ourselves. Under the covers, soft sleep falling over our eyes, we think maybe tomorrow we’ll figure it all out.
James Hacker lives, works, and writes in Sacramento, California. His work has appeared in Kasma Magazine and Fiction on the Web.