This story originally appeared in the Winter 1991 issue of After Hours.
It was published under the name Mary Catherine Koroloff.
I never signed on for this shift. I never even signed on for this job, just got it somehow, sometime. Just ended up here one day in a stiff suit and an itchy, tight hat.
Don’t quite know when or why I decided to resign myself to a life of endlessly flickering screens, twenty of them.
You know, fat and hairy, greasy and leering, always drinking slimy coffee from a perpetually soggy coffee cup. I sit inside a building which is fully, blindingly lit all night—very eerie—and I watch the cars periodically zoom by. They break the silence suddenly, then their dirty noise dies away into the complete and vibrant silence of a fully lit office building at night.
I watch screens.
Twenty of them.
They are spread before me on a fake wood console, glittering like eyes. Their dull, constant, delicate retracings of images are the only movement around me. They picture empty black and white spaces. I see the inside of one of the giant board rooms. It is flat and hollow. I see the gray stripe—it must be yellow, I’ve never seen it in real life—down the center of the parking structure. I see the inside of gleaming white bathrooms, pristine from an earlier cleaning by people like myself, people who don’t remember who gave them their jobs or when they were given them, people who just turn up one day in a scratchy uniform with no memories of a past and no awareness of the present and no hope for the future.
The bathrooms are gleaming metal and porcelain, completely still and abandoned. Twenty places to watch, all of them suspended in time, waiting like predatory things for morning, caught like guilty criminals in artificial light when they would much rather wrap themselves in the windy blackness of night and rest in secret.
I wonder if fixtures sleep?
The bright artificial fluorescent lights are barbaric and harsh, they keep everything awake in a brutal way. How long have the lights been on like that, weeks, months, years? Ever since I have been here, it has been perpetual day for the poor things. It would be enough to drive me insane. I suppose that’s why they seem so sinister, so washed out, so bleak and cold.
I find myself wondering why I am suddenly so sympathetic toward bathroom fixtures.
I look from left to right, watching each screen for a few minutes, examining the space, making sure nothing untoward is happening. Nothing untoward is ever happening. Well, almost never. The fixtures wait for something to happen. They’d be happy if something, anything, happened to relieve the maddening glare.
A corridor of offices. The hall stretches down long under fluorescent lights, then ends abruptly in a—red?—glowing Coke machine. There is an Idaho Spud wrapper crumpled in a corner. It has been there forever.
The people like me who pick up Idaho Spud wrappers don’t do a very good job.
The place is so still, like a tomb. It’s like having to face my mortality every time I come in for work. And they don’t pay me enough for that.
She showed up again last night. At first, I didn’t even notice her, until I realized I had been staring at the same screen for fifteen minutes—the screen showing the huge office room where all the junior executives have their tiny little cubicles that they try to freshen up with little plants that die and shiny posters of famous works of art and coffee mugs with cute slogans like If you think the dead don’t come back to life, you should be here at quitting time!
She stood right in the middle of the room. I stared at the screen for fifteen minutes, looking right at her, until I realized she wasn’t something that was supposed to be there. Of course, I don’t really know if it’s a she. It looks like a woman, all wrapped up in white sheets. Like a mummy or an Arab. Whatever it is just stands there, doesn’t move. I stared at her for fifteen minutes without even registering that she wasn’t another chair or pen set. Anyhow, she’s not causing any trouble. So why bother. Move your eyes and she’ll go away.
And she does.
Look away and she’ll get bored with you. Or you’ll get bored with her, I don’t understand the specific dynamics.
I pour myself about my millionth cup of coffee and stare entranced at the screens. I don’t mean entranced with interest, I just mean hypnotized, in a bored white caffeine daze.
You might think she makes me nervous. That isn’t it at all. She’s the most comfortable thing about this whole harsh artificially lit up place. But she tries not to be. She tries to be just like everything else. Obviously she’s not supposed to be on my screens so I wish she’d do something to prove it. Shimmy or turn a cartwheel or anything. She’s something special, something odd, something untoward. It’s stupid that she’s just wasting herself among the gleaming fixtures and trying to fit in with them. She doesn’t fit in at all. It bothers me that she tries.
Sometimes she shows up on two or three screens at a time. You might suggest that she has two friends or something, but believe me, that isn’t the case. I know the way the white material twists around what seems to be her head, the way it trails around what I suspect to be ankles—and on every screen, even if she’s on five or ten, it’s always her, undeniably.
Don’t ask me how she does it, I just work here.
She doesn’t just stand around, mind you. That’s not to say she moves, either. But every time she shows up she drapes herself differently, adapting herself to her environment. Sometimes she sits, sometimes she stretches across the shiny boardroom table, sometimes she leans against the glowing Coke machine like a bundle of tent sticks some Boy Scout forgot to take on his camping trip.
As I stare, it occurs to me that I really should be getting up about now and going to the rooms in which I see her. I should tell her to clear out. That is my job as night watchman, if I am not mistaken.
I don’t remember who told me that. Someone must have told me that, someone must have taught me how to be a night watchman. And I should have a boss, shouldn’t I?
Even though I have been staring at the screen and I have not blinked, she is gone. I don’t remember her going, but that’s that. All that is left is gray traceries on a shiny screen that show me the inside of the cafeteria, smooth and shiny. One fluorescent bulb is flickering, and will go out soon.
I bet the neatly stacked, sterile plastic trays are jumping for joy. It’s only a dying fluorescent bulb, but it’s something new. To a neatly stacked, sterile plastic tray, the littlest things are big events.
She’ll be back.
When she comes back, that’s it. I was given this job and I intend to fulfill my responsibility. I will actually go to those parts of the building I have only stared at. I will pick up that damn Idaho Spud wrapper that has been bothering me. I will walk down the halls, by the doors. I’ll be part of the pictures on the screen.
What an eerie thought.
But then, nobody will be watching them.
An even eerier thought.
I take a drink of my coffee to calm myself. My heart is racing! What an adventure it will be! I’ll ask her who she is, what she thinks she is doing. I’ll use that deep scary night watchman voice I have been practicing in the wee hours. It really is impressive. It rips apart the silence, daring a listener to lift a finger against my imposing might.
Really, it still bothers me that I don’t have a boss.
Or a home.
Don’t be silly.
Of course I have a home. Everyone has a home, don’t they? I seem to remember something about mothers and sisters and dogs and shrubbery fitting in there somewhere. And of course I had a mother. Everyone has a mother.
My mother had red hair. My father was a lounge singer. His name was Ricky. There were weird neighbors always over playing canasta and smoking cigarettes.
No, that can’t be right. That was a television show.
Something is wrong here.
One does not usually confuse one’s childhood with a television show. Especially a sitcom.
I don’t like this anymore. I search my memory, but all I can think of are black and white images flickering, puppets with freckles, a clown, a man in a dress.
My hand is shaking as I hold the coffee cup and suddenly the pictures on the screen are terrifying to me.
She’s huddled in the corner of the main hall. Right by the door to the outer lobby.
Where I am.
I want to go home now. I’m sure I’ll remember where home is when this shift is over. There’ll probably be a nice warm dinner waiting for me, even. Eventually my shift will be over, that’s for certain. No one works forever, it just seems that way.
My hands are still shaking.
How long have I been here?
Did I spring into this world fully formed, with a tight hat on my head and a cold cup of coffee in my hand?
She’s right on the other side of that door. Crumpled up like a bag of laundry.
I should get up.
I should open the door.
The flabby muscles in my legs twitch and my heart races. The knuckles around the cup are white and I don’t realize I am crushing the cup until cold coffee drips into my lap.
I want to go back to my screens, to the Idaho Spud wrapper, to the gray stripe down the middle of the parking structure, to a fascinated absorption with the sterile plastic cafeteria trays. I don’t care that I’ve been here forever, that I will be here forever, that the lights in the building will burn forever and even though they flicker once in a while for comic relief they will never die. I don’t care, because there’s nothing I can do about it anyway.
So I close my eyes. I squeeze them shut and crush the paper cup into a cold wet waxy ball in my hand. I clench my teeth. My whole body is shaking. I hear the screens humming, and suddenly I know she is gone and that she won’t come back.
Outside, a car zooms by, splashing through a puddle. I hear the water falling on pavement that my foot will never, ever touch.
I open my eyes.
I watch screens.