The files needed alphabetized. They sat stacked, great behemoths of procrastination, a testament to the laziness of a man who had “put in his dues”. Now they awaited organization and the giving of thick manila folder paper-cuts. It was past putting off. And now the task, as always, was set to others who didn’t have alphabetizing files in their job description.
The problem with putting in one’s dues, she thought, was that everywhere there was someone who felt they had done just that and then the job always fell to someone else. It was an endless cycle of dis-ownership, a built in caste system. There was nothing to do but start with “A”.
When she got to Dickens her mind wandered away from the mundaneness of her acquired duty. She thought about the yellow of Miss Havisham’s dress in relation to the yellow of the manila folders she was meticulously filing away. She thought about Pip and his “great expectations” and thought about her great expectations before college, of being lost in thought and words. She cut her finger on the edge of a file and was brought back to the now in dull aches and no blood.
Her mind began to drift again in the “E’s”. Eliot. T.S. Eliot. She thought about the last lines of “The Hollow Men”: “This is how the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” She wondered how many optical managers out there thought about literature as they alphabetized the files of their lazy Optometrists. She had a feeling it wasn’t so many. Not that other Optometrists did not share her doctor’s feelings of putting in one’s dues, but in the grand scheme of things she felt alphabetized in the wrong category of needing a decent paying job to make ends meet with an arts degree.
“M” came faster than she expected. She thought of “Barleby the Scrivener”. She would prefer not to do this, as Bartleby had preferred not copy law in the confines of a brick and mortar building with a view of a blackened wall. She looked at all the paper contained in those files, words and numbers scribbled about living souls that wouldn’t mean a damn thing in 20 years, “On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” She decided she needed a break.
She stepped outside and let the heat of the day warm her into feeling. She realized her hands were numb, and counted five paper-cuts on her tingling fingers. She sat on the low curb adjoining the building and let the sun drown her until she felt dizzy with warmth. She let her mind stretch out like a sun-soaked cat. She needed this little luxury to finish her task. Fifteen minutes seemed so little an amount of time to replenish her from three hours of tedium. She pooled herself together, more puddle of thought than human being, and walked back into the artificial air and fluorescent glow of the cavernous building.
The “P’s” made her mind pause on Poe. The opening lines of “The Fall of the House of Usher” felt oppressive and heavy:
I know not how it was –but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me –upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain –upon the bleak walls –upon the vacant eye-like windows –upon a few rank sedges –and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees –with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium –the bitter lapse into everyday life-the hideous dropping off of the reveller upon opium –the bitter lapse into everyday life –the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart –an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.
Poe’s words seemed apt for the desolation of spirit she found in the daunting monotony of record filing. She too felt an “utter depression of soul” as she separated “Pa—“ from “Pe—“. She wondered how her company could be a paperless company yet have so many papers to file. Half her time was spent filing or shredding documents—it would be more bearable if she could focus solely on helping people.
She felt like a mouse, or something equally small and infinitesimal in the universe, forcing a sense of order on these papered stacks. As Steinbeck wrote, “Trouble with mice is you always kill ‘em.” And with that thought she killed the “S’s”.
Finally she got to the “W’s”. Her mind focused on Virginia Woolf and pondered the meaning of a mind. Woolf wrote, “My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery – always buzzing, humming, soaring, roaring, diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What is this passion for?” She wondered this of herself as she finished the day’s repetition.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a solid elderly gentleman with a friendly face. His skin had the look of worn paper, frail over heavy muscle from years of hard labor. His dentures rattled in his mouth as he talked and gave him a slow drawl. He was picking up his glasses. Maybe they made him see memories that had been fogged about the edges. He spoke of Dorothy as if she had known her, of lost time, and of love. His story meandered like those of grandfathers and grandmothers—it didn’t need chronological order or alphabetization. He pulled it loose like a string and she sat there transfixed by his tale. Tears began welling in his eyes, and she felt his well springing in her—two strangers, sharing an elegy. She would file his and Dorothy’s story in her mind, not in rigid structure, but in feeling; somewhere she could pull it loose like a thread and remember to live without regret.
*”The Anthropomorphic Cabinet”, by Salvador Dali