Roberta died last week and everyone here is stunned. All the other clerks in the Attendance Office, all the clerks in the other offices. They walk about talking quietly or moving as though they’re underwater. They’ve all called their doctors for check-ups or diets.
Roberta’d had diabetes for years. Every morning she and all the other cafeteria people would sit around eating eggs and bacon and potatoes and doughnuts and Roberta’d roar and bellow that it wouldn’t hurt this once. She was in her mid-fifties.
She went home Friday with the ’flu. She talked to her son Monday morning. She called her doctor because she didn’t feel well. She started to call one of the other District cafeteria managers and died with the phone in her hand.
Now it’s time for the Memorial Service. She was buried last week, up north, near San Francisco, with her family. The speech? service? is in the Assembly Hall, but all the people who’ve known her for the last thirty years are turning up here, in the Attendance Office.
They moved to booming California from the South or the Mid-West in their teens or twenties, and now they’re hovering in the doorway, standing stiffly against the counter, people who haven’t seen each other fifteen years or more. All scrubbed, all in dark clothes, all straight from the hair-dresser’s, all about retiring-age.
The Main Clerk here was a friend of Roberta’s, or at least had known her for donkey’s years, yelled and bellowed with her lunchtimes across the fatty pizza bread. So all these people have come to wait here til four, till the service-time, to wait for her, for the Main Clerk.
They’re all around my desk.
They’re looking past me, talking to each other, staring into the distances between them. They’re talking about the houses they’ve sold here and bought out there in the desert near Palm Springs, among the rocks and the Joshua trees and the life-preserving sun; about children, grandchildren and medical benefits; about lives scattered by time and now brought together, each of them into this circle, to stare at death. How? they are saying to each other, staring at death in the centre of the circle, What have we done? In all our quiet, modest, unassuming lives that are finishing now, in all our lives what have we done to deserve death?
They’re all standing. Appalled. In dark blue, dark purple blazers and Bermuda jackets.
They’re all around my desk like dark pencil-pines around a cemetery.
I stare at the yellow wood veneer of the office furniture. They’re around me, the pines around a country cemetery, uncut yellow grass under a screaming blue sky, pale green wrought iron fence subsiding unevenly around the graves. These old colleagues are talking past me, looking past me, as though I don’t exist, as though I’ve already died and sunk from sight. The yellow grass screams with heat.
I stare out the window. Yellow sunlight and the incandescent coral flamboyant flowering in its straitjacket of poor soil and arbitrary, school-gardener lopping; I stare at the front of the glass and wood cafeteria that looks, behind the flamboyant that reminds me of bougainvillea, like a tropical Army hospital about three years after the war.
The cafeteria hasn’t changed for thirty years. All the buildings here have that Army-disposal, Army-built, Army-abandoned feel.
Time has drained down and out of them.
The air in the office is motionless. Roberta died. They’ll all die. Soon. Roberta’s already dead.
The school is changeless. Everything in it is changeless, desiccating.
The Main Clerk arrives.
All in make-up; all clean; all with their hands hanging by their sides because they can’t agree on a common prayer-book so they’ve brought none at all; all in their best sudden-funeral clothes, they all file off like dark cemetery pines along a roadside fence; all silent, all frightened, they all file off. I stare at the wooden furniture. I could be here thirty years, like the furniture.
It’s four. It’s knock-off time. I get my things, clock off, and go. As I pass the Assembly Hall I begin to run. I run faster. I’ll stay here for thirty years and then I’ll die and they’ll all come and stand around me; I run and slam the door and start the car and shake and scream. They’ll all stand around me, around that hideous yellow oak-veneer desk I haunt all day, they’ll stand around me in that dessicated building. I pump and pump the accelerator. I will not stay here; I’ll get out and get a job somewhere else where I can be alive; I won’t stay here thirty years and die, I will not, will not, the traffic is screaming, stay here and die.
M. F. McAuliffe is the Australian co-founder and contributing editor for the Portland-based, multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly, and its offshoot, GobQ/Reprobate Books. All the stories featured here are part of the forthcoming collection, I’m Afraid of Americans (Portland, shoegaze, 2018).