Sarah hated her job. She hated it with that electric passion she normally reserved for people who tossed garbage in the street or for Midnight Karaoke-man, her tuneless, insomniac neighbor across the alley. Her job was poison. It crept into her bloodstream even as early as Saturday afternoons, turning what remained of her weekends into a grim countdown toward doom. Every weekday morning, as she sat down at her desk, her heart sank, her spirits drooped, her eyelids began to swing shut from the unrepentant, soul-shredding boredom of it all.
She wrote letters. Lots and lots of letters. Actually she couldn’t even claim that she “wrote” them, since what she actually did was to “type” them. The letters appeared in her in-tray, heaps and heaps of them, from someone in an upstairs office who clearly believed the best way to get people to buy something was to beat them into submission. She typed letters all day, every day—but they weren’t even called letters, oh no. These were “direct mail pieces,” and she was not a typist, nor a secretary, nor even an administrative assistant. Sarah was a marketeer.
Fancy titles notwithstanding, Sarah was a marketeer with a quota. Like any good itinerant laborer, she was expected to crank out 154 typed letters every day. The number itself was a little mysterious. Why not 150? Or even 155?
With computers and whatnot , the number hadn’t seemed all that daunting when she took the job.
“Crank out 154 letters, and you’re free to go, a whole day’s wages in your pocket, even if you finish by noon,” the recruiter said. He spoke so fast, Sarah expected every sentence to end with a “Hey, hey, hey, step right up and see, little lady.”
One hundred fifty-four. Sarah typed an average of 68 words a minute, though some of those words were unconventionally spelled, and she felt she was up to the challenge, at least until some freelance writing projects came through.
Six weeks later, she was still leaving work every day, last one out the door, rubbing her aching wrists and head. One hundred and fifty-four, it turned out, was a lot.
There were some girls (they were all “girls” here, as if they slipped into the 1950s unexpectedly as they came through the door) who really were out the door by noon, the girls who seemed to spend more time at the coffee machine than at their desks, but who still managed to crank out the letters and were gone by lunchtime. These girls wore bright red lipstick and had bright red lives just beyond the exit sign and didn’t spend their days in a gray haze of hate like Sarah.
The letters themselves contained not a single original or eye-catching thought, not a whit of wit or even an accidentally clever turn of phrase. These phrases did not turn. They lay on the page, flat and panting for air like fish out of water. “You won’t believe!” “New and improved!” “Don’t miss out!” If there were a royalty to be paid to the inventor of the exclamation point, this company would have been bankrupt the first week.
Fortunately for them, there was no such price on punctuation, and they celebrated by scattering exclamation points across the pages thickly and at random, sometimes landing several at the end of the same sentence. A particular favorite: “You’ve got to see it to believe it!!!!!!!” The same could be said of that flatworm that grew in people’s bodies and had to be coaxed out and twirled up on a stick, but still, Sarah reflected, that did not make her anxious to purchase one. So many exclamation points; so little to be genuinely excited about.
This particular Thursday, when Sarah was already beginning to feel crowded by the next Monday in line, she noticed something peculiar. Clippy was back. Clippy, that notoriously annoying animated paperclip so beloved of Microsoft and beloathed by everyone else, wasn’t supposed to be here. Her computer software had been upgraded, and from what she understood, Clippy had been relegated to the has-been pile, there to commiserate with the Budweiser pit-bull and the Taco Bell chihuahua. Yet, here he was, bending and unbending, coiling and uncoiling in a manner Sarah found deeply offputting.
There was a sinuousness that hadn’t been there before. A vaguely hypnotic quality. Sarah stared at him as he pulsed there at the bottom of her screen. Then he winked.
Sarah stared at Clippy for a moment as he drifted like a dust mote from the lower right corner of her screen to the lower left and back again. The magic-carpet-like sheet of animated paper he floated on had developed tassels at each corner. Clippy slowly unwound himself into a straight line with just a hint of a bulge in the middle, then wound himself back up again. He winked a second time, more slowly.
Sarah tried right-clicking on him, but the menu that popped up no longer had “hide assistant” as an option. The choices now were “Stroke assistant” and “Whisper in assistant’s ear” and “Straighten Clippy out, he’s been a naughty assistant.” Sarah would have laughed if she hadn’t been so freaked. Just then, Shift Supervisor Margaret, or “Margie,” as she preferred to be called, bent over Sarah’s desk, her half-exposed bosom nearly swallowing a small desk lamp. Margie had very nice bosoms, or at least Margie was convinced she did. She thought it unfair that only she and a select few lovers got to enjoy them, so she unveiled them as much as she could to give everyone a fair portion.
“What’s happening here?” Margie asked. Sarah moved to blank the screen so the pulsating Clippy wouldn’t show, but Clippy had already vanished.
“I’m typing. A letter,” said Sarah.
“A what?” Margie had that oh-you-naughty-girl look on her face again, a look she clearly and mistakenly believed endeared her to her staff.
“A direct mail piece,” Sarah said, mentally rolling her eyes.
Margie nodded, satisfied, and, activating the reverse thrust on her twin zeppelins, hove out of sight. Sarah turned back to her computer, only to find Clippy uncoiled and inchworming his way up the right side of her monitor screen.
“Stop that,” she told him, then wondered vaguely why she’d always assumed Clippy was a male. If it were female, no doubt someone at Microsoft would have stuck a ribbon on its head. And probably invisible tits that only geeks can see. She went back to typing, committed to ignoring what was almost certainly a hallucination brought on by rampant repetitive injury syndrome.
Fifteen minutes later, Sarah was becoming a little annoyed. Clippy kept disappearing around the back of documents, reappearing somewhere else. It was unnerving, especially since he seemed to have developed a tongue somewhere along the way.
Clippy’s eyebrows met in the middle. Sarah had never seen an angry paper clip before, but that was definitely what this was. He vanished, and Sarah breathed freely again. She started to type, but suddenly it was all Greek. Literally. The ordinary, Roman alphabet normally on her screen had been replaced by Greek. And some wingdings. Then the letters began running around the page like a firedrill at a kindergarten for challenged students. Sarah gaped at her screen, hands still poised above the keyboard, unable to register what was happening.
Clippy reappeared, looking smug. Sarah wouldn’t have thought that possible, but then lots of impossible things were happening here. He uncoiled, and aimed his tail pointedly at the chaos that was once a neatly typed direct mail piece. He smirked, coiled himself up like a snake, briefly sported a turban, waggled his eyebrows, uncoiled again.
Sarah flicked the screen where Clippy appeared. He didn’t flinch.
“I said no. Now straighten this mess out.” Sarah sat back and waited for her letter to rearrange itself the way she’d arranged it. It did, slowly, each letter ambling back into place, shifting to English, the words jigsawing themselves into something resembling recognizable language. Then the whole letter disappeared.
This was a bad day. Her hallucinations were going to keep her from hitting her quota, which meant she could be here ‘til midnight sorting it out. She took a paperclip, a real one, from her drawer, and with great ceremony, she showed it to Clippy. Then she twisted it flat, bent it backward and forward, over and over and over until it snapped. She put the halves on the desk in front of the monitor. Clippy failed to look intimidated by this display. Her salutation reappeared, but it said, “Dear Fartwad.” Sarah lay her head on her desk and considered bursting into tears.
“Fine! Fine, goddammit, whatever! Just give me back my screen!” The job just wasn’t worth it. They could quadruple her pay and give her backrubs, it wasn’t worth being bullied by an animated paper clip.
Her letter reappeared. Perfectly typed, as it had been, and complete, as it hadn’t. Sarah leaned forward. It was all there, every word, in place and formatted and beautifully done. It was even slightly better written than the original draft she was working from. Sarah saved the letter, then sat back and stared at the screen. She pulled out the next draft letter from the pile of pages in her inbox. She set it on the little podium thing next to her monitor, went to her computer to draw up a blank Word document, only to find this letter already completed too. A cascade of Windows opened on her monitor, each one matching a document in her to-do pile. Sarah saved them all, quickly, before they disappeared. There were 154 of them. It was 9.30 in the morning.
Sarah got up and went to the breakroom for a truly appalling cup of coffee. She leaned back against a greasy countertop, the cup lukewarm in her hands. She could leave right now, hey hey hey, a full day’s wages hot in her pocket. She took a sip from her cup and instantly regretted it. The scrub brush next to the sink was, supposedly, for scrubbing dishes, but Sarah briefly considered using it on her tongue. She dumped the remaining coffee down the drain and added her cup to the teetering pile of unwashed dish debris in the sink.
Back at her computer, Clippy was still on the screen, pulsing gently in a corner. Margie was bent over Sarah’s desk, rummaging through the pile of letters next to Sarah’s keyboard.
“You’d best get moving, there, little missy,” she said, smiling. “Type each one, take your time, no need to worry about being last one out! You’ve got the rest of your life, you know!”
“Already done.” She shouldn’t have, she knew it, but she couldn’t bear Margie’s implication that Sarah would be here as long as next week, much less the rest of her life.
“What’s that, honey?” Margie was of that class of woman who believed that If she were concerned or confused by something, simply pushing her breasts further toward it would help her regain some measure of control. This strategy was remarkably effective if what she was concerned about was her crying, hungry infant or one of the cocky college freshman boys who lived in the apartment next door. Sarah was neither. She had a pair of breasts of her own and didn’t find Margie’s particularly intimidating.
“I said I’m already done.” She smiled. “Too much coffee this morning, I guess.” She plucked her jacket off the back of her creaking wreck of an office chair and took her backpack from the bottom drawer of the slanted desk. She leaned over her computer to discover that not only had Clippy done her work, he’d saved it all in a file, named with today’s date, right there on her computer desktop. This she emailed to the central file where it would be recorded and her timesheet credited for a full day’s work. Hey hey hey.
“How is that possible? It’s not even 10 a.m.! Sarah-”
“See you tomorrow, Margaret,” said Sarah, and swanned out.
The rest of the day, Sarah spent at home. She read a book, she watched TV, she made herself a hot lunch and later, a very pleasant dinner. She played with her cats and drank a little wine. She didn’t go near her computer, though if pressed, she would not have been able to come up with a reason why. Normally she spent hours on her computer at home, even after spending hours on it at work. Today she didn’t, that was all.
The next day, Clippy was there even before she fired up Microsoft Word. He seemed entirely free to roam around her computer now, and after he banged out her 154 letters in just under eleven seconds, he followed her around the Internet. He even seemed to be reading her emails. She couldn’t remember ever having seen Clippy from the backside before. She went on Google to look up information about the animated icon, but every time she tried to access a website with information, her computer abruptly shut down. When it rebooted, Clippy was there, wagging his tail at her with an “uh uh uh, bad girl,” look in his eyes.
At noon, Sarah was tired of pretending to be working, which was nearly as exhausting as working. Margie could think what she liked, could test Sarah’s pee for steroids if she had to, she certainly wasn’t going to guess the truth. Sarah didn’t bother to say good-bye.
The weekend was remarkably quiet. Sarah cleaned her apartment for the first time in an unthinkably long time, removing from under the couch wads of cat hair so enormous they even scared the cats who had created them. She went for a hike only to remember that she hated hiking but finished the lap up the trail and back anyway. She took herself out to dinner and a couple of movies, briefly considered taking up smoking to stop her hands from twitching, talked to her cats about nothing at all, slept many hours, though none of them soundly. The one thing she did NOT do, didn’t even think about, wasn’t actually avoiding, you couldn’t say that, was to fire up her computer.
This went on for over a month. At work, Sarah pretended to be a dedicated employee, cranking out direct mail pieces at a furious pace, leaving every day just before noon. Clippy always seemed to know when someone was coming, and he’d disappear, leaving a screen with a half-finished letter innocently showing instead of whatever website they’d actually been perusing while all the characters she randomly typed registered nowhere on the machine. At home, her computer gathered dust, as did certain hazy corners of Sarah’s brain.
One Monday morning, for the very first time, Sarah was nearly half an hour late to work. She’d gotten up at the usual time, couldn’t even say where the time had gone, since she’d only done the things she normally did in the mornings, only perhaps rather slower. No one watching her turn on her computer would have noticed the flinch, it was so small.
Clippy was there, of course, in his usual place at the bottom right of the screen. He pulled an oversized pocketwatch out of the pocket he suddenly had, consulted it, frowned, grinned, and stuffed the watch back in his pocket, which then disappeared. He wagged his tail at her in his usual “naughty girl” gesture.
Clippy was more than usually … animated that day. He kept bobbling up and down, coiling his tail into a spring and sproinging back and forth along the bottom of her screen. He turned the right slider bar into a diving board and did silly dives from it, splashing into her taskbar. He seemed excited about something.
“What?” she finally asked him, when he’d turned himself into a fireworks display for the fourth time in an hour. “What is it?”
Uh oh. Sarah’s heart thumped once, loudly, in her chest. She most certainly did not want surprises from the animated … disturbance that haunted the bottom of her monitor.
“What is it?” she asked. Voices shrieked in her head, their messages of warning garbled but their meaning all too apparent. That bit of her brain she’d been ignoring, that bit that knew this was wrong, terribly terribly wrong, though why and how were unclear, was shaking off the dust and sounding the alarm. “What have you done?”
Now she was terrified. He’d never called her by name before. She sat there, shaking. Margie glanced over, and Sarah quickly ducked behind her monitor, sure her shock and fear showed on her face. Clippy had disappeared, but now her Internet browser window was moving, now her email account was opening. He had her password, her user name, everything! He pulled up her inbox and coiled himself into a spring, bouncing up and down on an unopened email.
With trembling fingers, Sarah took hold of the mouse, guided it to the subject line and clicked the email open.
“Congratulations! Your manuscript has been accepted for publication-“
It was all she saw. She woke up in the breakroom, flat on the filthy couch, a phalanx of temporary secretaries crowded around her wearing varying expressions of excitement and concern. Someone shoved a glass of water in her hand, someone else stroked the hair back from her forehead and face. She moved to sit up and found herself surrounded by bright red, smiling lips and hands like feathers fluttering around her, all trying to help her.
“She’s OK,” someone said.
“It’s the miracle couch. No one wants to lie on that couch,” someone else said, and there was a ripple of light, feminine laughter. Sarah looked up in their faces and wanted to cry. Such niceness, such simple kindness. Tears rushed into her eyes, stinging and embarrassing. A tissue found its way into her hand, and slowly, in twos and threes, the girls melted away. Sarah smiled at them all as they patted her knee or her head or winked before going.
Back at her computer, calmer, Sarah was able to read the rest of her email with some measure of poise. She’d written a book, apparently, and had submitted it with success to a reputable publisher who wanted to publish it and make her rich.
Sarah had not, in fact, written a book—she would have remembered. She sat at her computer, not even pretending to be working, and watched Clippy as he danced and boinged happily around on her monitor.
In the time she sat there, he brought up her bank account, her social security file, her credit record, her online dating profile, a collection of every song she’d ever furtively and illegally downloaded, and several emails she’d written—plus several she hadn’t—disparaging people who considered her their friend. He erased her balance on her bank sheet, then doubled it, then tripled it, then donated it all to an organization that Sarah found particularly loathsome before getting it back at the last second. He pulled up all her transcripts, credited her with several foreign languages and a couple of additional degrees, then created an FBI file, a CIA file, and a record of her non-existent drug abuse, police encounters and mental illnesses. He gave her histories of disaster and a future of potential ruin.
He returned everything to the way it had been, then blanked the screen. There he sat, alone against the blue background, pulsing like a heartbeat. Slowly, sinuously, he uncoiled and looped himself into a tiny little noose.
Sarah leaned forward and turned off her monitor, the image of Clippy fading slowly, in the manner of old-fashioned television sets. She stood up, pulled her jacket off the chair and her backpack from its customary drawer. She felt an arm snake around her back, turned to see Margie’s eyes just a few inches away.
“It’s not so bad, really,” Margie whispered in her ear, guiding her in the breakroom where there were no computers. “We’re all learning ways to slowly take ourselves off the grid. We can teach you. You just have to be patient. You’ll be here awhile.”