Tag Archives: Sunday Scribblings

Quartet for Three Telephones and Percussion

Gordon’s basement window is a very tight squeeze.  The casing digs into my stomach and the broken latch jabs my shoulder.  I must have gained even more weight than I realized, but no amount of fat is going to stop me now.  My foot skids sideways on the top of the washing machine and my butt slams down hard, jarring my spine. I almost drop the can of white gas.  Something clatters off the edge.  This is not the smooth, stealthy entrance I intended.  I switch on my flashlight.  Globs of spilled detergent spatter the metal surface and there is a big skid mark where I stepped in a slick spot. I shine my flashlight down at the floor. The washing machine lid handle sits in a puddle where it fell when I came in.  Gordon stepped on it when he climbed up to change a light bulb and here it is still, a year later.  The room has a moist, stagnant smell from the leaking hose in back of the washer.  I ease myself down, stretching to avoid the wetness with my sheepskin boots.  I almost make it; only a little water seeps in. I check my pockets, a clumsy task with rubber gloves on but as far as I can tell, everything is safe;  the string, cigarettes and matches made it through the tight squeeze. I scowl at the window.  It has shrunk since the last time I had to crawl through it.  So many things can change in a year.

In this damp, moldy room, though, time has stood still.  The sour wet smell, the broken handle on the washing machine, the dank seepage on the floor with disgusting clumps of lint and hair–even the window is the same with its broken latch. It is I who have changed.  I yank my shirt down. It’s always creeping up over my butt these days–Gordon would make some scathing comment.  He’s merciless about fat people.   But he still keeps calling me.  It has gotten to the point where I keep the phone unplugged a lot of the time.  He must have seen me around town lately–I would have expected my weight to make him lose interest.  But he doesn’t call because he wants me.   He calls out of sheer meanness. He never speaks; he just breathes–filling up big spaces on my answering machine.  Then he just hangs up.  I fish the lid handle out of the puddle and with a flick of my wrist, send it spinning into the darkness under the dryer, forever out of reach.

With a firm grip on the gas can, I step out of the laundry room into the main part of the cellar.  There, next to a portable stereo, is Gordon’s precious drum set. He loves to put on a cassette and play along. The clang-clang of the cowbell makes his drumming sound like a herd of cattle coming home to be milked. His enthusiasm interferes with his rhythm and it’s as if the cows have all gotten drunk on fermented ground apples. They lurch and stagger into the barn, crashing into the walls and knocking over buckets and farm equipment.  This unrhythmic clattering and pounding, with the rock music playing in the background make the whole building vibrate and Gordon throws back his head and screams.  He tosses his mane of hair. In his imagination, he’s on stage with thousands of lovesick fans fighting over him.

Tonight, though, the house is quiet. It’s a deadly, stifling quiet. It swallows me up. I’m a shadowy figment of imagination, invisible to everybody but myself.  On one hand, it’s a hollow, echoing silence stretching in all directions; but at the same time it is muffled like cotton padding, or the quilted satin inside Dad’s coffin.  Sounds would be muted inside a coffin. Closed off.  Was that why they had the casket open at the funeral, so Dad could hear what was going on?

No–they kept it open to satisfy their own morbid curiosity and to show off the undertaker’s skill. Dad hadn’t looked like himself and everyone commented on this fact: they were gratified that he looked so peaceful at last.  But I knew Dad would much prefer being left quietly alone in the dark, listening to the minute sounds of his body decomposing, eternally at one with the all but inaudible crackles his veins and arteries would make as they hardened, and the tiny snaps as the ligaments fell off his bones.

The phone rang just as I got home from the funeral and I rushed to pick it up.  But it was just Gordon’s cold breathing, then a click followed by a dial tone.  I was stunned.  How dare he mess with me when Dad just died?

It is fitting now that the house is quiet.  And for awhile, at least, Gordon will not disturb anyone with his phone calls.  There’s no point standing here in the basement–the telephones are all upstairs.  I leave the gas can beside the drums and hurry up the dark staircase to the kitchen.  The steps make reassuring creaks as I go up. They tell me I’m real.

The big wooden salad bowl on the kitchen counter makes me suck in my breath.  Gordon made the best salads… he had his own special dressing, laced with basil.  I shine my flashlight into the bowl before I can stop myself.  Two forks lie in a puddle of dressing. A few wilted pieces of Romaine are left and I fish them out hungrily. The flavor of basil mingled with balsamic vinegar and Tamari brings memories that stab like an ice pick… Gordon feeding me morsels of lettuce and avocado, both of us laughing.

There are only a few shreds of lettuce.  He and Pearl have eaten all of the avocado.

I smear my hand around in the bottom of the bowl and pop my fingers into my mouth but the rubber glove ruins the flavor.  The bitter taste brings me back to my task–I’m here to get Gordon’s telephones, not to scavenge his leftovers.

The bedroom phone was the one Gordon used most, lying sprawled across his enormous king-sized bed… But the bed is not where it was–the whole room is wrong!  I dart my flashlight around in bewilderment.  Instead of Gordon’s sunny wicker furniture are brooding, Victorian antiques.  The four-poster bed has a fringed canopy with dusty pink roses all over it.  Roses are everywhere–vases of them, and strands of silk rosebuds festoon the windows and circle the big mirror over the dressing table. A ponderous-looking dresser and two matching night stands complete the new furnishings.  Tassels and fringes hang from dozens of throw pillows and from draperies thrown over the dresser and bedside tables. Mirrors and Maxfield Parrish prints in heavy frames decorate the walls.  White Victorian lace curtains have replaced Gordon’s wooden blinds.  Colored glass perfume bottles and dainty little boxes clutter the dressing table.  Pearl lives here?  This is even worse than I thought…  I throw open the closet doors and glare at the frilly dresses and long flowing skirts.  I use my flashlight to peer at some of the labels:  All size 7, or “small.”  My own shadowy bulk reflected in the mirrors tells me that I am not “small.”  In my dumpy sweats, I look like a bad-tempered geriatric nurse.

He never asked me to move in…  They haven’t even known each other that long and here she is, decorating his house!  I grab the phone, a white-and-gold antique-looking job and jerk the cord out of its jack.  Nurse?  No–I’m a doctor, performing emergency surgery.

“You fool, Gordon,” I mutter.  “She’s useless.  If I’d moved in, the first thing I would have done was clean up that laundry room of yours.”

As I turn to leave, my flashlight beam spotlights a framed photograph on the wall beside the door.  Gordon, all in spandex and black leather like a rock star.   “To My Gorgeous Rock God–All my love, Pearl” is scrawled across the bottom. Usually, people sign their own photo, but Pearl has given Gordon a portrait of himself to moon over.

“She worships my drumming,” Gordon told me when he left me.  “She worships me. I feel like a god when I’m around her!”

About the drumming, all I could manage was a tactful silence.  Pretend I liked it?  Act worshipful?  I just couldn’t.  But Pearl was willing to treat him like a god.  Does that mean she loved him more than I did?  Or did my stubborn honesty mean that I loved him more?  I drive myself crazy with questions like that, going over the same thing again and again; and even if I did figure it out, it would make no difference.  Gordon has made his choice.

The rest of the house is scarcely recognizable but I try not to notice as I gather up the phones.  Only the basement has not changed, and I will soon fix that…

It’s so easy, almost anticlimactic to arrange the three telephones around the gas can in the center of Gordon’s drum set. The roll of string comes out of my pocket and dips itself in the fuel almost before I know it is happening.  A loose screw lies on the cement and I tie one end around it to make a sinker and lower it into the open can.  The soaked cord uncoils to stretch into the laundry room and out the window, but for me there will be no more tight squeezes.  I am now free to go back up the stairs like the lady of the house and let myself out through the back door, making my exit far more elegant than my humiliating entrance.

I stroll down the narrow path beside the house to retrieve the end of the string and the black trench coat I stashed outside the basement window.  The coat is a definite improvement. It smoothly conceals the baggy sweats and gives me the look of an undercover agent.

The back yard is terraced and I sit on a low stone wall to wait for Gordon to come home.  He’ll charge down the stairs three at a time with his fire extinguisher but it will be too late to save his beloved drums.  And the phones?  They’ll have melted by the time he puts the fire out.  I clap my hand over my mouth to hold in my gleeful chuckling.

It’s a long, freezing wait.  My fingers and toes are stiff and I’m shivering, my excitement evaporated long before the car drives up. All I can think about now is getting warm.  At last, the light comes on in the bedroom. I glance down at the end of the string next to my feet. I wait until the light goes off. I take out the pack of cigarettes.

It takes almost a whole book of matches to light one.  It’s hard to light a cigarette in a night wind under the best of circumstances.  Shivering and with rubber gloves on, it is almost impossible.  And there’s the truth of it; inside my snazzy trench coat, I’m just a fumbling amateur.  A professional would have brought a lighter, the push button kind that gloved fingers could operate with no problem.  Something to keep in mind if I decide to make a career of this…

At last, miraculously, one of the matches stays lit long enough to ignite the tobacco.  I take a long drag to suck in a little warmth and immediately choke on the harsh smoke.  My eyes water and I lose the cigarette as my hands fly to my mouth to stifle an explosion of coughing.  I stopped smoking several months ago; it’s the reason I gained weight.  “Idiot!” I curse myself as I search the bare ground.  The cigarette lies next to a flower pot, still cheerfully burning, and I place it with the unlit end against the string.  I should have plenty of time to get away before it burns down to ignite the cord.

Sunday Scribblings – Fire

The Best Pizza

Mama’s has the best pizza in Santa Barbara. We sit on opposite sides of a little table for two with a red and white checked tablecloth. I take a book of matches out of my purse and light the blue candle in one of those chianti bottles wrapped in straw. It flickers between us and gives his skin a golden glow. A waiter brings the pizza and sets it on a circular metal stand in the center of the table. He moves the candle over to the side. The pizza is gorgeous–thick, bubbly mozzarella cheese studded with chunks of Italian sausage and fat mushroom slices. We lift big pieces onto our plates. Mmmmmm, thick chewy crust, like fresh-baked Italian bread. For a long time we don’t speak. We just savor big juicy bites. It’s not something you can nibble at–it’s the sort of food you inhale. It’s “died and gone to heaven” pizza.

Sunday Scribblings – Food

The Sleepy-Bear in Klamath Falls

Brass bells on a chain jangle as I push open the motel office door and step onto faded blue carpeting. A brass statue of Ganesha stands on the counter; orange and yellow marigolds float in a bowl at his feet. Ganesha holds a sitar. He wears a pointed crown, and his fat feet stand on an inverted lotus blossom. Orange light from the setting sun streams through the window at the far end of the room, which smells like incense and curry powder. A laminated sign lies flat on the worn, cracked, fake wood counter: “Welcom!!! Pleas ring bell.” A dome shaped call bell sits next to the sign and I punch the knob jutting from the top of it. The dilapidated chairs lined up along the wall look like they were salvaged one by one from the streets in front of peoples’ houses on garbage day.

A middle-aged East Indian man in a white short-sleeved shirt steps through a doorway on the other side of the counter. The aroma of curry, onions, and grease follows him in a potent wave. He closes the door.

“Welcome, welcome!” His eyes, so black they might be all pupil, are full of joy and his smile is like the one he would give to a sister he hasn’t seen in years. I can’t help but smile back.

“Thank you,” I say. “Do you have any single rooms?”

“Yes, of course!” He pulls paperwork out of a drawer and hands it to me to fill out. “Where are you from?” he asks. “What brings you to Klamath Falls?”

“I drove down from Portland.” I look up from the form that wants to know my name and address, car make and license plate number, and how I intend to pay. “I’m on my way to Crater Lake, but when I got to the turnoff I realized it was getting late, so I decided to come here for the night and get a good start in the morning.”

“Wonderful!” He rubs his hands together as I finish filling out the paperwork. I dig in my backpack for my wallet, take out a credit card, and hand it to him with the form.

He gives me a room key. “Thanks,” I say, and pick up my pack.

“No, wait! There are so many things to do in Klamath Falls! Here, let me give you a map so you can enjoy yourself while you stay with us.” From another drawer, he extracts a tourist map all in bright colors. He grabs a yellow marker and circles the attractions. “Across the street is a park–see, right here. There are beautiful hiking trails and benches if you want to sit and contemplate the lake. Here is the theatre, a museum, restaurants–all kinds of food–I’m sure you will find something wonderful to do.” He holds out the map and our hands brush as I take it from him. His skin is the color of milk chocolate. “And…” He leans over the counter and gives me a mysterious smile. “I have saved the best for last.”

He stands back and spreads his arms. “Every morning, we celebrate!” His smile turns ecstatic. “You must come. There will be all sorts of delicious food as we celebrate the new day. Please come to our celebration!”

“Thank you so much! I’d be delighted!” How wonderful to celebrate each new day.

~

My room is clean but shabby. The dark green bedspread has some snags and loose threads. The cream wallpaper with a brown fleur de lis pattern is torn here and there. The ancient television hunches on its stand like a giant toad, and a bare wire connects it to the power outlet instead of a normal cord and plug. There’s a little coffee pot on the desk with a packet of coffee and containers of creamer and sugar. Next to the desk is a refrigerator. The ice cube trays in the freezer are full, a good thing to discover since the ice machine I passed on the way to my room had an “Out of Order” sign on it. I go back to my red Geo Prism, lift the icebox out of the trunk, and lug it into my room.

I close the drapes and sit on the edge of the bed. I tug my hiking boots off. I look at the map with its colorful little cartoons of boats in the lake and people fishing. I might as well take a walk and see if any of the restaurants look good. But first, I want a shower.

The bathtub has been scrubbed, but the deep rust stains make it look dirty. I hesitate. Oh, don’t be such a wuss, I tell myself. I move the big round faucet dial to medium hot and give it a pull.  The pipes groan. Water spits and sputters from the shower head before it settles into a warm stream. I step in.  This place is ready to fall apart!

~

I head up Main Street on foot. The sidewalk is dark between the round streetlights. It feels creepy.  I pass a big clock on a fluted pole; it looks just like the pocket watch my dad had when I was growing up. It’s five after eight. I walk faster. This is just like Main Street in every small town out in the middle of nowhere. What am I doing here? I pull my jacket tight around me. The night streets in Portland feel safer.

I turn around and head back to the Sleepy Bear. I’ve got cheese and apples in my ice box. I have crackers and nuts. I’ll make do.

~

I sit on the bed, pillows propped behind me, with an apple and sliced cheddar cheese on a paper plate next to me. I pick up the remote and start flipping through the channels to see what tomorrow’s weather will be when I go to Crater Lake. There’s a lot of static, then a loud pop. Sparks flash from the wire in back of the TV and the screen goes black. I get up and click the power switch off–the remote doesn’t work anymore. A faint ozone smell fills the room. I don’t care about the TV. I’ve brought a new book by Charles de Lint, Forests of the Heart. It only takes a couple of pages before I’m back in Newford with Bettina and her milagros, and I read until I fall asleep.

Morning is sunny. The view over Crater Lake should be spectacular; I’ll get some good photos. I make a pot of coffee and pull on a wool fisherman’s sweater and jeans while it’s brewing. I drink the coffee while I pack the icebox and stuff my toiletries and yesterday’s clothes into my pack.

There are only two other cars in the parking lot. I load the icebox into the trunk and toss my backpack into the passenger’s seat before I head to the office to turn in my key. I pass a swimming pool that I hadn’t seen in the dark last night. The water is dark green and thick with algae. There must be hundreds of pounds of green slime.

I go into the office. At one end, the chairs that had been lined up along the wall cluster around an empty table. In the middle of the room is a huge table spread with a white tablecloth and piled with food–bagels, cream cheese, bread, peanut butter, strawberry jam, apples, oranges, corn flakes, Rice Krispies, Trix, Wheaties, hot oatmeal, sweet rolls, coffee, and hot water to make tea. Someone has wheeled in a refrigerator and plugged it into the wall. Inside are milk, orange juice, and half and half for the coffee. There is far more food than I’ve ever seen at a hotel breakfast–it’s enough to make me want to celebrate.

I  go up to the counter and leave my key in the box before I fill a big mug with coffee and take a bagel over to the table. I slather it with Philly and take a big bite. The cream cheese squishes over my tongue and the bagel is fresh and chewy. Today I’ll see Crater Lake for the first time. The coffee is hot and good. It’s a happy morning.

On the counter, Ganesha gleams. Someone polishes him a lot. I slip a handful of loose change into his bowl along with the flowers. The bells on the door jangle as I leave.

Sunday Scribblings – Story

Birth

Prompted by Sunday Scribblings

The nine months of pregnancy seemed to last forever as I grew huge. I was single and starting a new life in the Rainier Vista housing project in Seattle. It was a colorful, culturally diverse neighborhood. That year, everybody was listening to the O’Jays and Gladys Knight and the Pips. I couldn’t afford a car and had to walk to the Laundromat and the grocery store, and the men would look me over as I passed by. No more wolf whistles for me–they’d shout, “Hey, big mama!”

The night I went into labor, it seemed like every other baby in Seattle had decided to be born that same night, and by the time Jan, my Lamaze coach, and I got to Swedish Medical Center, the maternity ward was full. The nurses had to wheel a bed for me into the supply closet. I was in labor in the middle of a room with rows of buckets, mops, and push brooms leaning against the bare, unfinished walls and shelves stacked with sheets and towels, under a dim light bulb. It didn’t matter; we were so busy timing contractions and trying to do the breathing that the kind of room we were in didn’t make any difference. We could hear other women screaming, but we were staying in control because we had taken the Lamaze class and practiced every day. My mind wasn’t working very well and my memory of the whole thing was a blur afterwards, because all the blood gets pumped down into your uterus to do all that work, and there isn’t enough left even to allow your brain to form a thought. It was a good thing Jan was there; I couldn’t remember a single thing I’d learned in the childbirth class.

Now they have family birth centers in the hospitals with labor rooms made to look like cozy bedrooms with rocking chairs, patchwork quilts on the beds, and paintings on the walls to rest your eyes between contractions. I had given birth in a broom closet, except for the very end when they rushed me into the Delivery Room because the broom closet wasn’t good enough for the doctor, and in the end, I pushed the baby out the same way every other woman did in those days, strapped to the delivery table, legs up in stirrups, the abrupt, impatient doctor waiting at the end of the table to catch the baby. Pushing the baby out was excruciating, like trying to force a giant medicine ball through the narrow opening of my vagina. I’d never seen the doctor before in my life; my own doctor was busy with some other woman who had gotten there first.

I got to hold her for a minute or two before they took her to the nursery, and in that moment, nothing else mattered, not the blood, the strange doctor, or the indignities of the delivery room. There was blood everywhere, even on the ceiling from the spurt of arterial blood when they cut the umbilical cord before it stopped pulsating. I felt like a hero. We gazed at the baby in wonder. When she was born, Eithne had a mop of jet-black baby hair, and her hands and feet looked too big for her tiny body, but then they took her away so they could do the horrid things hospitals do to babies, scrubbing off all the white vernix coating their skin and poking the bottoms of their little feet to get blood for tests.

The hospital ward on the Labor and Delivery floor was like a party. All the new mothers were sitting up in bed, high on pain medication, chatting about labor experiences. It was growing dark when a nurse wheeled our babies in. Eithne was all wrapped up in a pink blanket, with a little pink cotton cap on her head. The nurse checked the name on both our plastic hospital bracelets before giving her to me. “All right,” she said, her voice matter of fact. “We’re going to undress her this one time so you can see that she has all her little fingers and toes. After this, we ask that you not take her clothes off, it only stresses them and disturbs them.”

I stared while the nurse unwrapped the blanket and showed me the baby’s big, oversized hands with their long fingers and her feet with their little toes. She took off the cap, and I marveled at the mop of straight, jet-black hair. The nurse wrapped the baby up again, gave her to me and left us to get acquainted.

I held her, gazing into her little pixy face, and Eithne gazed solemnly back. All the lullabies I remembered from long ago came streaming back into my head, and I longed to rock her gently and sing them to her. “All the pretty little horses,” I hummed so softly that only the two of us could hear. Her presence, there in my arms, felt magical. I could hardly believe she was real, and that finally, after everything that had happened, I was holding my own child.

Burgers at Verna’s

The first time I went to Hawaii, I stayed with Maggie and Dave in Hilo.  I was enchanted by the volcano with its vast crater, the red-hot lava bubbling up from the center of the earth and steamy sulfur hissing out of cracks. Miles before you got to the volcano, the lush tropical forest gave way to stark lava fields, nothing but lava as far as you could see. It was eerie, like being on a different planet, or on the moon, and I borrowed Maggie’s car to drive back to the volcano two more times. Dave said there were lots more things to see and we piled into his van one day and headed for the Kona coast on the other side of the island with its gorgeous tropical beaches and swaying palm trees, but the volcano enchanted me more. It was a long drive, and we were all very hungry by the time we got back to Hilo.

“You haven’t really experienced the island until you’ve eaten at the local drive-in,” Dave said, pulling into a parking lot next to a dingy-looking hamburger stand. There were several picnic tables near the ordering window. We chose an empty table and sat down to wait. At a nearby table was a Hawaiian family, an enormous couple and their three kids, having dinner. This meal was an event: the table was so loaded with everything on the menu that there was barely room for the plates and silverware. We tried not to stare but we just couldn’t stop ourselves.

This was a serious eating ritual with no talking. They all had masses of gorgeous, wavy black hair that they’d pulled back out of the way with elastic pony-tail holders. Thighs were spread wide to make room for their massive bellies to settle in between. Their sturdy brown calves were anchored to broad feet in black plastic flip flops while they gave full attention to the hamburgers and fries and pizza with all the toppings and greasy noodles with succulent chunks of Spam and fried chicken and coleslaw and mashed potatoes and gravy and pie, all within easy reach.  The children were silent, steadily eating while their parents ate and smoked, one hand holding a fork and the other keeping a lighted cigarette ready for that steadying puff between each bite. They ate slowly, smoking deliberately, looking over the food and choosing ahead of time which golden piece of fried chicken to take next. Their attention and gratitude seemed almost holy and made me decide to notice my own food more. A warm wind smelling of sulfur gusted gently over us.

The woman at the window called out that our order was ready, and we got our teriyaki burgers and took them back to the car. We wolfed our whole meal down on the way home, joking and laughing and making plans to visit an ancient petroglyph site the next day. The first bite of my burger was delicious, but I was so busy talking, I never noticed how the rest of it tasted.

Sunday Scribblings: Event

Fighting over who gets the most

Prompted by Sunday Scribblings: Dinner

Dinnertime for the dogs is serious business: lots of anticipatory chop-licking and jumping for joy when the bowls are being filled. I taught them to leap high in the air instead of jumping all over me, so it looks like the most joyful cavorting you can imagine. Then I set down the bowls. Each dog checks to make sure the other one didn’t get more. It’s the same with treats, and if a piece of jerky should fall out of Kieran’s mouth (he’s clumsy and not too bright), Jilly snatches it before he even realizes what happened.

When Joel and I were university students, we’d have dinner at Mama’s, an Italian restaurant right out of the movies with red-and-white checked tablecloths and candles in chianti bottles dripping wax all over the straw holders. We’d begin with antipasto–cold cuts, cheese slices, peppers and olives–while we waited for the pizza. At last it would come, round, hot, and succulent with bubbly melted cheese, sliced unevenly with an equal number of slices but some pieces bigger than others. Like a couple of dogs, we’d eye the pizza and try to grab the biggest slice first. Sometimes I won; sometimes he did. Mama’s pizza was wonderful, meant to be savored, but we bolted it like dogs, racing to get to the last slice before the other person could. Joel always got the last piece; I just couldn’t eat fast enough. Dessert would be spumoni, green and pink ice cream full of candied fruit. We each had our own bowl to linger over and enjoy, and it’s still my favorite ice cream.

Besides fighting over pizza, we found countless other ways to be unkind to each other until I moved to another state, found someone else, and had a child. Joel was killed in an accident. I still think of him when “49 Bye-Byes” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash comes on the radio; it was our song. How we could be best friends, lovers, and utterly horrible to each other all at the same time still pains me, but now, years later, the best-friends part is what remains.

Time Clock

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