Serving Time


Francis sits in his office at the Worker’s Compensation Bureau. He checks his clock. It is 3:00 P.M on Friday afternoon. The sun shines through stately trees and the window blinds. Shadowy lines fall across his desk, his hands, his face. He stifles another yawn and gets up to look out the window.

There is nobody on the street. He sees the windows of the other government buildings in the declining light, but the sunlight prevents him from seeing through the windows. He cannot tell who is behind those windows or whether they are looking back at him. He imagines others, like himself, who face a constant onslaught of paper.

Suddenly, his eyebrows rise. He draws a quick breath. I almost had it. The name – the unnamable name that he once named (he is sure of it) – was on the tip of his tongue. He looks around for his writing pad, believing that if he could lay his hands on it, the name would come back to him and he would write it and it would be done. But the pad is nowhere in sight.

I must have forgotten it again. Then the accusations begin. It’s not important enough to you to remember. You’ll never name it. Your writing days are over. Too much has happened. And not enough.

Francis returns to his desk and types on his keyboard. He hits “Enter.” He types in another search term, then another.  Word follows word. He tries to make links among dissimilar, often contradictory concepts. Will. Perception. Experience. Language. Consciousness. Sex. Subconscious. Labyrinth. Death. Each search starts with promise. (At times he thinks to himself, I am a searcher, a seeker.) Web pages are returned that suggest profound ideas. Yet each turns out to be incomplete. Hopeful still, he clicks on one link and then another. Soon, the monitor becomes a blur, and he forgets where he started or why.

I must relax my mind. He starts playing computer solitaire. Game after game passes without success. He sees his mistakes too late or loses concentration, letting opportunities pass without taking advantage.

When he looks up, there is more paperwork in his in-basket. The clerk sneaked in here again while I was distracted. He must stand by the door watching and waiting. Does he know what I am distracting myself with? Is he reporting it to the Director? Little snit. Wait until I catch him. From now on I stay alert.

Francis is sure that his superiors are judging him negatively. They must notice the forms and reports that always seem to pile up. When he feels the rare sense of ambition, he can move through the paperwork with great speed, scanning, marking, stamping. But the backlog always seems to grow. No one has questioned him about this, let alone reprimanded him. Francis can’t even recall the last time he spoke to a manager or director. But they are around, he tells himself. And they cannot be pleased.

An email comes through on his computer. The alert pings loudly. It is a meeting request. He gets these often. Francis considers whether there will be any repercussions if he skips the meeting. He usually rejects the request. No one questions his absence, though he is sure the Director must be aware, marking the absence in some log that will be presented to Francis at the time of judgment.

Leaning back into his chair, he bites an apple and considers his office. It is warm, though a cool wind seems to blow outside. His chair is cushioned, cozy. The fluorescent lighting is more than adequate. Pictures of his family line the black metal bookcase in front of him. I am quite lucky, he thinks. Not everyone has an office nor the privacy that goes with it. No one bothers me, beyond the sneaky clerk. Yes, I am happy, he tells himself. His closed lips form a straight line. His left eye trails off lazily to the side.

He takes a last bite of the apple and tosses it in the trash. An agitated fly crawls to the edge of the bin and buzzes around Francis’s head. He swats fruitlessly at the frightened bug. It flies to the window. Francis grabs a stack of paper and pursues it to the window. He snaps it against the glass. The paper is now blood-stained, the hairy remains of the creature mashed into the document. Francis goes to a little-used end of his desk, behind the monitor, and scrapes the remains off. The paperwork is returned to his work-pile.

Francis turns back to the window. Still, there is not a soul on the street. Looking at his clock, he sees that it is 3:00 P.M. It is always 3:00 P.M. Friday afternoon. There is something he tries to remember, but it just won’t come to him. He returns to his desk and again searches the Web.


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