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Monday, September 21, 2009

The souls of everyday objects

At work, I normally keep to myself. I sit at my desk with my red felt tip pens, my stapler, my eraser, my mechanical pencils and my ruler that I use to mark my spot on the page I'm reading. These are the objects I share more time in my day with than real people. These are my tools for work, but other than that, I don't attach much transcendental importance to them.

I share an office with an English bloke that is nearing retirement age. He's nice enough, occasionally chuckling or blurting something out, thus requiring me to interrupt my interaction with my tools and crane my neck around his computer monitor and find out what he's on about. I usually reply with something along the lines of "Ain't that the truth" or whatever it takes to let him know that I'm politely responsive but that I don't care to continue the conversation as I have 500 pages in front of me that need to be proofread by next week.

I have lunch and share coffees at times with the authors that I proofread for, and we exchange pleasantries and talk about the weather and shit. But in general, I keep to myself; my working life and personal life don't intermix. In fact, the office just adjacent to mine is filled with nice looking people whose names I do not even know, because I stay in my shell, huddled over my pile of documents, and when I leave work I go home as opposed to partaking in the BBQs and movie nights and pub crawls that are organized by the more social co-workers among us.

For this reason, I didn't really know Don, whose office is directly in front of mine; office number 76. I only know Don by name because it is written right on the door which is the first thing I see when I look outside my office. Don's door is usually open and I can always see him click clacking away on his keyboard or speaking to someone loudly on the phone, causing me to quietly get up and shut my door. He always shoots me an apologetic look. I shake my head and mouth, "No problem" before closing my door gently.

But today his door is closed and his light is off because Don died of a heart attack over the weekend.

Please don't say "I'm sorry" or "my condolences" which would imply that I had exchanged more than ten words with Don in my life, all of which were obligatory niceties such as "G'morning", exchanged with the most hastened of eye contact imaginable in the hallway to and from the shared printer or the restrooms, like I do with all of the other 200 people in this office that I don't know. It would imply that maybe we had cigarettes together, or bumped shoulders in the café downstairs while updating each other on our weekend. It would imply that we informed each other of office gossip from time to time or included each other in work-friendly email jokes. We did none of that. I don't even know Don's marital status or if he has children.

I'm certainly not upset. But I know somewhere, some people are very upset.

I know that someone will go through the things in his office and empty out the physical remains of Don's professional life, shortly after the remains of his physical life-- his body-- are dealt with and probably long before the remains of his personal life – his clothes, his aftershave, the half-used bottle of roll-on deodorant with a straggling armpit hair still stuck to it– are parted with painfully when the stomach can be mustered up to do so by the people closest to him.

The remains of his professional life must be the items given the least importance. Maybe the person that cleans out his office after his family has picked up his personal items will think nothing of returning his pile of paperclips to the general office supply room to mix and mingle and become indistinguishable from the other paperclips. That bottle of White-Out that Don used to carefully correct his work that later became smudged with his shirt cuff will be carried away to its proper place, perhaps finding itself on some secretary's desk within a week's time. A half-used pad of post-it notes will be placed on top of the stack of unopened ones in the supply room and someone will pick them up not knowing that the used post-its from that particular pad had been used to jot down Don's grocery lists, meeting dates, deadlines, birthday reminders. Maybe the pens that Don preferred - the black Pilot Vball 0.7 pens - will thoughtlessly be cast into their appropriate box without a thought to the fact that one of them in particular was actually held by Don himself when blood was still pumping through his living hands, who never imagined that he would be dead before he himself chucked the pen into the waste bin or before he patted his breast pocket to find that it had become lost. Maybe he never looked at these items and wondered if they, with their plastic flimsiness and Made-in-China cheapness, would outlive him. Perhaps these things that carry no sentimental value were the objects that had the most physical contact with Don during his waking hours. They intimately melded with Don's day to day life and will now be dissolved into the ebb and flow of impersonal, sterile office life and reincarnated onto other employees' desks without even their knowing.

I'm stopped in the hall on my way inside my office from the water cooler and am asked for clarification regarding some of my proofreading work, and I see that I am responding and explaining but I feel far away from myself and my voice becomes a hum inside my head and my eyes can't keep from darting towards the closed door to office number 76 with no light coming through underneath. I imagine Don's desk and all of this meaningless office supply shit among papers that look disorganized but that I'm sure had some system that only Don could explain, were he here to do so. I imagine the coffee mug with a ring of dried back-washed coffee that still contains some of Don's saliva at the bottom that he forgot to rinse out when he left on Friday afternoon because he wasn't feeling well. And my eyes turn back to the tedium of my red handwriting across the stapled page of the document that I'd spent hours poring over that is being held up for me to look at. I notice my coffee smudge at the bottom corner of it from Friday's desperate afternoon latte, and I think about all the stupid shit that we touch that remains in the world after we disappear that nobody gives a thought to when we're gone. And vulnerability punches me hard in the gut.

Suddenly I remember how when I was very young and in love with a boy, even the pencil he had chewed on became a relic for me to hide in my jewelry box and flush over when I'd pull it out and examine the tiny bite marks in it, knowing how ashamed I would feel if he knew how I'd saved it. And I remember the first time I ever saw Luisito's bedroom, allowed in as a platonic guest before we had ever shared a bed and I remember very clearly how my eyes scanned his room and lingered on his pillow and how I felt a pinprick of jealousy and wonder towards it for sharing more intimate contact with him than I ever had.

Just objects.

And I felt a deep sense of shame for carrying on just outside Don's closed door, behind which seemed to me to still contain part of his remains.

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Rassles September 21, 2009 at 1:41 PM  

Well this just blew my fucking mind.

Lil September 21, 2009 at 3:50 PM  

Wow. Utterly blown away. Brilliant writing and emotion

People in the Sun September 21, 2009 at 7:13 PM  

I don't have anything to add. But I still wanted to let you know I was here and I read it and it was brilliant.

A Free Man September 21, 2009 at 7:54 PM  

Man, I love it when you pop up because you just flat kick everyone's ass. You don't have to write often because when you do, you write incredibly.

flutter September 21, 2009 at 10:07 PM  

This life is a lovely, fragile thing, isn't it?

Not Afraid to Use It September 21, 2009 at 10:42 PM  

What everyone else said. This is hard-hitting. I just spent a week house-sitting for my folks while they were on vacation. We lightheartedly talked about where their wills and other important documents were, should their plane fall out of the sky. I admit that there was a dark moment every day they were enjoying their vacation where my mind wandered everything you just wrote about.

Ginny September 21, 2009 at 10:57 PM  

The idea of Don's paperclips, going back to the general office's supply of paperclips...fuck.

This was amazing.

Pueblo girl September 22, 2009 at 3:23 AM  

Detritus as epitaph. Shit.

The Unbearable Banishment September 22, 2009 at 4:14 AM  

You don't post often but when you do, you don't waste our time. Thanks for that.

Mongoliangirl September 22, 2009 at 6:09 AM  

Sweet vulnerability. Thanks for making it real, Blues. This post is lovely all the way down to my guts.
You also make me hope, after I'm gone, that someone will take care of my pencil with a little pumpkin at the top of it. I don't know where I got it, but it's been in every pencil holder I've had since I was about 12.

Rassles September 22, 2009 at 8:55 AM  

Seriously, this was so good, and I keep on reading it and thinking about how lame I am for writing about something know. A guy who quotes "Tango and Cash" on the bus.

Blues September 22, 2009 at 10:40 AM  

@All - you guys are a nice bunch. Today sucked cause I had the task of proofreading the letter of condolence on behalf of our director to Don's wife (turns out he was married and was already coordinating partial retirement so he could start to enjoy his life). It just sucked.

Anyway, thanks for all the nice words about my writing. Seriously it makes me feel all giddy especially during a shitty day. I wish I could write more often though. How the fuck do you guys do it?

formerly fun September 22, 2009 at 10:56 AM  

Okay first, that was just amazing. I know there's a real story there but from a crafting standpoint,it was flawless and wonderful to read and yes, worth waiting for.

Second, on a personal note. My husband's first wife died of a congenital heart defect very young and though I can't always embody it the way he can, he has taught me some very valuable philosophies about life. One, do it now-whatever 'it' is. We don't overspend but we have found ways to travel and do some things that are important to us even when he was out of work because you just never know when you will take that last breath. Two, when stress or anger or hurt etc. creep up ask yourself, will this be important a year from now? No? Let it go. Easier to say than do but our time here is brief at best.Three, we are really only meaningful, important and remembered by the people who love us so don't spend too much time worrying about the others.

Ok, I'm done waxing philosophical but thank you for the visceral reminder of all of that.

Ellie September 22, 2009 at 11:51 AM  

What all them people said.

And, when you're gone, if we're still here (maybe some of us will be?), this post, among others, will be here as a reminder that you were here and you were sharp and perceptive and sensitive. Vulnerability can go fuck off.

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 4:23 PM  

Blues--of course, I agree with everyone else on this...just so lovely. Also, the husband of a friend at work died a few weeks ago. She was out one week while he was sick, out one week after he died, and then back at work. I don't know how she does it. She's had a couple of episodes, but everyday I'm amazed at her resiliancy (not spelled right, I'm sure). If it were me, I'd still be in bed with the covers over my head. Or, more likely, under it.

Anonymous September 22, 2009 at 4:23 PM  

Blues--of course, I agree with everyone else on this...just so lovely. Also, the husband of a friend at work died a few weeks ago. She was out one week while he was sick, out one week after he died, and then back at work. I don't know how she does it. She's had a couple of episodes, but everyday I'm amazed at her resiliancy (not spelled right, I'm sure). If it were me, I'd still be in bed with the covers over my head. Or, more likely, under it.

Carl September 23, 2009 at 6:45 AM  

Did the guy's death make you think about children?

That's what happens to me since I am a way late comer to the child-creation game.

Schmutzie September 25, 2009 at 9:14 AM  

This weblog is being featured on Five Star Friday -

Ashleigh Burroughs September 25, 2009 at 3:54 PM  

Beautifully constructed. I was standing outside the office with you.

Cleaning out my Dad's desk after he died..... taking home the sharpened pencils and the clips that had held treasures for as long as I can remember. I look at them now, years later, and I hear his voice.

Again, beautiful work.

Nat September 25, 2009 at 5:38 PM  

I found you on Five Star Friday. This was absolutely beautiful.

Blues September 27, 2009 at 4:16 AM  

@FF - I love it when you´re waxing philosophical. I try to live by that too. Even if I can´t afford to do a lot of the shit I would really like to, it´s good to still create memories for yourself outside the norm. If anything, to leave the people you love with more after you´re gone.

@Ellie - that´s actually one of the nicest compliments I think I´ve ever received.

@Hereinfranklin - I´ve never experienced first hand death before (I mean, someone really really close), but I am always amazed at how people can pull themselves together enough to plan a funeral and deal with things that need to be dealt with.

@Carl - yeah. That happens to me too. And I´m a late comer too. I´m hoping it happens before I´m 35, and that is so suprising to me that I say that. I never ever imagined being this age and not having children yet.

@Schmutzie - wow, thanks!

@Ashleigh - Thanks for sharing that. That is something I wondered about - Don´s family coming in and how difficult it must be to determine the things that you want to keep and the things that don´t matter, when every thing you see was something that was there with him.

@Nat - welcome and thanks.

jen September 28, 2009 at 10:29 AM  

heart. wrenched.

Kono September 28, 2009 at 10:38 AM  

excellent piece of writing, what's funny is how i've thought about the same things, a few times when people died here at work and other times about people i've loved, what did they do in the last week, day, hours before the big sleep came and went, what did they think, who did they think about, they leave clues but no definitive answers and my wondering is endless.

Jen O. September 29, 2009 at 6:15 AM  

That was lovely. I came here via Five Star Friday. I'm glad I did.

Thank you.

Gypsy October 12, 2009 at 7:43 AM  

This needs to be published. Honestly.

Chris of Arabia November 20, 2009 at 12:25 PM  

The more I read, the more I am in awe of the quality of the written word available on the internet and for free. Chances are this is the will be the most enduring epitaph Don will ever have.

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