STORYGLOSSIA    Issue 19    April 2007


The Bureaucrat


by Christopher Battle



Outside it's October and the cold air feels like unslept-on sheets; its currents billow leaves and cause the tree branches to shed the weight of excess sugar in a wealth of papery, one-sided gems. The pavement remembers summer in its fault lines where the last of the afternoon's radiant heat huddles a few seconds longer.

A clerk sits in an office, typing and stamping, writing notes, answering phones. The office is a cramped square where the skeleton light of fluorescent lamps exaggerates the flatness of his desk, drying the colors out into off-whites and tans. He wears a pale blue shirt, a muted red tie, grey pants, black shoes.

This job should have been a point in passing for him; he'd only meant to stay for a summer—six months tops. Somehow things had worked out differently and now he had been working in this office for nearly two years. The swiftness of the years at the end of youth dazzled him; the false immediacy of everyday tasks must have compressed his sense of time, so that he had difficulty gauging its real length. After all, tedium isn't flat but jagged, at least on an hourly scale, and the variation of minutiae throughout a week creates an impression of movement, like the feeling of motion one gets sitting on a stationary train while watching a moving train pass by.

When he'd first started his job, his zeroes had looked like eggs, his printing had been blocky and uneven, and he had sometimes lapsed into cursive in the middle of filling out forms with "Please Print Clearly" marked in boldface letters across the top. He'd never pushed down hard enough on carbon copies and had produced reams of blank forms. All this had changed. Now his printing was strong and fluid, perfectly readable. His zeroes were circles and his sevens were always crossed. He'd even begun to draw a certain subdued pleasure from producing financial reports—he did them as often as possible, leaving strong impressions on the pale blues, pinks, and yellows of the carbon copies, legible ghosts separated from their bodies by tiny perforations. The pages of the reports were held together by shiny metal clips and approved by stamps with purplish non-fade-able ink. Inside was a record of the constrained flow of money, every transaction logged, a perfect history, interpretation-less, correct.

He types away the waning afternoon, signing, slouching, yawning, sitting up, drinking coffee, letting his eyes wander over the crawling columns of acronyms and their referent numbers. He'll go home at six, and come back again at nine the next day, with a bit of sleep in between, then go home again at six, then sleep, then come back again at nine. He reads column 501, GLAC QLQ87, which had an NIBD only affected by activity 726, from the GS funds. He spends his life wandering among frozen waterfalls of symbols, histories of minuscule variations, print irregularities and typographical errors, checking them, correcting them, holding them together with shiny metal clips.




He was riding an impossibly tall elephant; it towered stories above the houses and telephone poles. The vista below was a wash of sepia, with an unreal lack of detail. The streets were arranged in a grid, each interstice occupied by a small house centered on a flat, treeless plot. Some plots had a bush in the yard. One had a concrete rain gutter, one a flag, several had cars parked in front. He couldn't see any people but he did see a dog, far below, barking. The barking sounded distant, as if from the far end of a long metal sewer pipe. The elephant stopped and folded like an accordion, each wrinkle in its flesh deepening into a bellow pleat until the animal was compressed and stacked in thin layers a few feet high. He stepped off the elephant into the yard of one of the houses. It was different than the others, but it was difficult to discern how. It was hard to notice details here.




After work on Friday he went grocery shopping. The supermarket was set up like a maze; the shopper had to start with the fruits and vegetables, then pass by the eggs and juices, perhaps skirting the dairy product cul-de-sac, on through the tea, coffee, frozen foods, deli meats, baby supplies, toiletries, magazines, and chocolate, to at last escape through the checkout.

He stood in the produce section, not yet having moved into the one-way maze, staring at the eggplants and cauliflowers which sat in adjacent bins. The contrast between the vegetables amazed him; both types of vegetable seemed alien, in relation to him and to one another. He wondered what the three of them, eggplant, cauliflower, and man, could have in common. They were vertices of a triangle; smooth, dark, and shiny, white, crinkled, and matte, porous, tan, and breathing.

He picked out a single rose wrapped in plastic from the floral section. Tonight he was having his first date in almost a year. He had met his date at a colleague's birthday party. She was the friend of another colleague's girlfriend and they had had a nice conversation throughout most of the party. He had walked her to her car at the end of the night and had kissed her on the cheek goodbye. When she drove off he watched her go, lingering for a minute in the comfortable absence sometimes left over after another person departs.

They met for their date at a pleasantly-lit, moderately-priced café and decided to eat on the patio, despite the chilliness of the evening. They both had red wine and pasta; she carried the conversation easily, smoothing out the silences with flirtatious looks and absurd jokes, her laughter buoyed up on alcohol and rich cream sauce. He felt drowsy, warmed by food and wine, surrounded by cold air, on the edge of conversation and sleep. She was clever, funny, beautiful, well-educated, nice-smelling, at ease. He imagined her naked, then reclining, then moaning. But the image aroused no desire; they were just vertices of a triangle, with the third point somewhere in the deepening after-dinner night.

They had coffee, considered dessert, but then decided against it. He walked her to her car for the second time, where they hugged and he kissed her lightly on the cheek again. They promised to call each other soon and she got into her car and drove off, leaving him without that comfortable absence sometimes left over after another person departs. He walked home rather than taking a cab, thinking about the episodic nature of the remembered past and how each episode held a fragment of his real past, a fragment that wouldn't be returned until the episode was forgotten. He imagined that he remembered everything and had no past at all.




He was floating in a large attic room. There was one window, letting in light from a bright, cloudless sky. An elephant was floating in the room as well; it was a stuffed toy, half his size, purple and white with a pink hat and long eyelashes. It started to float towards him, building up speed. He awkwardly flapped and kicked his way out of the elephant's path, setting himself slowly spinning in the process. He didn't understand weightlessness; he had no feel for its peculiar balance. The elephant was indefinably sinister and he was sure it wanted to harm him. It turned and zipped back towards him. He threw himself into a dizzying tumble in his mad flapping to get out of its way and then started furiously kicking backwards to try to right himself. He tried to yell, but there is no sound in weightless places. When he finally stopped turning he found that he was staring into a dark, empty corner of the room. The elephant was behind him; he could feel its presence, coming steadily at his back. There was nothing he could do. He stared into the gloom.




He left his office the following Monday with his briefcase full. Outside it was cold and heavily clouded, but rainless. The sun was setting earlier as the winter days marched out of closets on the backs of wool coats, gloves, and hats. He walked toward the industrial district, stopping when he reached the train yard. He didn't like trains; the winding, merging tracks of steel on gravel reminded him of a desiccated riverbed that he had seen as a child, which he was sure had been inhabited by scorpions, rats, and malevolent spirits.

There were no trains in this part of the train yard so he jumped the fence and walked down to the tracks. He lay down between the rails, his briefcase at his feet. Inside it were stacks of forms, transaction records, budgets, memoranda of accountability, all in triplicate to be dispersed like pollen to filing cabinets and hanging folders in locked desk drawers. He imagined keeping numbers in careful columns on fish skins and boxcars and lonely swings behind single-story houses.

The sky was a dark blue now; the daytime clouds had rolled away, promising a clear, cold night. He started to wonder what time it was and what he could eat for dinner. He was too old to dream of staying here between the rails if he heard a train coming. He looked up at the clearing sky and imagined wide, boundless things, made of fluid, edgeless, detail-less, unending.


Copyright©2007 Christopher Battle