In the hospital where I used to work, the medical records department where they kept the x-ray files and patient charts was in a building called the Central Records Division. It was like a vast underground burial complex, or one of those secret nuclear test facilities somewhere out in the desert. As I picked up the phone to clock in, I began to feel stifled, as if a moldy, old wool blanket had been thrown over me, or a shroud. I kept saying this job was temporary, just until something better came along, but I’d been telling myself that for years. I was lucky to have a job at all; Oregon’s unemployment rate was about the worst in the whole nation. Clocking in was one of the bad parts; it was done on the phone, and a lot of numbers needed to be punched in. I’m dyslexic when it comes to numbers; I’ve always had trouble getting them in the right order, and sometimes it took two or three tries before I got it right. Often, I got distracted and forgot to clock in at all until it was too late, setting myself up for defeat and frustration before the work day even began.
I had barely booted up my computer when Greta, the file room supervisor, called me into her office. “Go ahead and close the door.” Her voice was abrupt, businesslike. “Have a seat.”
Greta’s office was a chaotic mess. The other chair was usually piled with papers and folders, but today they’d been cleared away so I could sit down. I had a horrible feeling this meant trouble. Greta wore a beige dress and pumps that matched her short beige-colored hair, giving her a monochromatic look like a faded photograph. “Welcome back,” she said, giving me what was probably meant to be a smile but was more like something between a smirk and a grimace. Her fishy, pale-ochre eyes glittered. It was a smile that made my uneasiness a lot worse. As soon as the door was closed, the smile disappeared.
“I’m so sorry about your father. Did the funeral go well?”
“Thank you. Yes, it was a very nice funeral.”
“I assume you don’t want to talk about it. I’ll send out a memo and tell the others not to mention it to you.”
For a moment I was taken aback; then I remembered that when Greta’s miniature schnauzer had to be put to sleep, she sent out an email to everybody saying she did not want to talk about it, and all the photos of the little dog disappeared from her office walls. “That’s okay. I don’t mind people bringing it up.”
Greta frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, it’s okay.”
“All right then.” She picked up a file and glanced through it. It turned out to be my file. “To change the subject, we received the printout from the electronic timecard system today. During the last month, you failed to clock in properly three times.”
“I did? I try to remember, but I’m really awful with that.” I’d been a lot happier when we used to write in our hours and hand them in at the end of each pay period. Most of us just filled in the sheet once a week; there was no need to remember to pick up the phone twice a day and punch in endless numbers before the deadline.
“I’m going to have to write you up,” Greta told me. “This will go in your record as a first offense. After three offences, it’s grounds for termination.”
I was floored; she might as well have slapped me in the face. “But I’m one of the most productive people in our department!”
“That makes no difference. The rules are the same for everyone. This hospital’s mission is one of firmness and fairness; it’s a core strategic priority. The only way to implement fairness is to follow the rules consistently. Nobody gets any special treatment.” She slipped a typewritten sheet of paper into my file and glared at me. “Do you have a problem with this hospital?”
I wanted to say, yes, I have a problem–this is bureaucratic nitpicking, and I’m out of here! But then how would I pay the rent? “No, of course not,” I said, “but I do have a problem forgetting to clock in. I’ve been trying really hard, but it keeps happening.” Come to think of it, as long as I was groveling, I might as well go whole hog. “I’m at a loss. Do you have any ideas that might help me?”
She did show a hint of a real smile then and looked at me with what might have been genuine fondness. “Hmmm… Well, a good strategy might be to try taping a big sign on your monitor reminding you, so you can’t even see your screen until you’ve clocked in.”
Of course. It was so obvious, it was embarrassing–why had I never thought of that?
I used to imagine that place as a cocoon from which I’d break free one day, but that was before they hired Greta to replace our old supervisor. There are lots of things that have something incubating inside. Pyramids were used for initiation rituals: a symbolic death and rebirth. Then there was Jesus’ tomb where he lay wrapped in a burial shroud for three days before the resurrection. A volcano incubates explosions, and I felt like smashing something as I walked back to my workstation. It was time to look for a new job, and this time I’d keep at it instead of giving up the way I usually did. I needed to set a goal: I will be out of here by… but I had no idea what a reasonable deadline for finding a new job would be.
Sunday Scribblings: Deadline