Keeping up the good work

 

By Alex Cormos     

 

If there was one thing that the city of Baltor had plenty of, it was its population: it just so happened that most people living in the area were its inhabitants. The odd thing about all that, though, was the town’s population registry: if anyone had bothered to consult the official papers, they would’ve seen that while the birth rate kept on growing throughout the years, progressively, the mortality rate would’ve been nowhere to be found. Anyway, this ever-growing abundance of people could not have been any more useful for the biggest factory that place had ever seen – BLM.

The locals could hardly say anything about BLM, probably for the same reason they couldn’t say much about the river that passed through Baltor: they were both part of the scenery, of the structure of Baltor, so deeply set in the anatomy of that town, that it seemed like they both belonged to it since the very beginning of time – inquiring about BLM would’ve been for the locals as absurd an effort as thinking about when and how to breathe or blink. This could’ve been the reason for the confused looks they would’ve given to anyone who might’ve thought them odd for not knowing what that factory was producing, why it was there, or for how long it had been part of Baltor. Things were simple for the locals: Baltor was BLM.

The factory, occupying an overwhelming space right in the center of Baltor, was composed of two long and narrow halls, where people worked in shifts. Amidst those two buildings towered the headquarters of Human Resources, the tallest building in all of Baltor, a grey cube, with numerous little windows, always covered by their plastic blinds; it was the first building anyone heading towards the town would’ve noticed; if the locals wanted to know the time, they looked not at their watches, nor did they search for the church’s short tower: instead, they looked for the electronic clock, placed on all four sides of the grey cube, so that it could been seen from literally anywhere. Then there was the long and shrilling sound of the factory’s siren: besides commanding the rotation of the three shifts, it was also the sound which told all people of Baltor how to organize their life, the one which guided them hour by hour, day by day, telling them when it was time to open and close their eyes.

Each Wednesday morning, long before the break of dawn, tens of people got out of their houses into the mist, reddened by the light of the electric clocks, and joined the already long queue which finally led to the Human Resources’ building. Those were the new employees, waiting in line, one by one, until it was their turn to step in an office, where they received their work uniform bearing their newly assigned number; from that moment on, that unique number became their signature, their name.

Unlike those who were already employed, the people still waiting in line to be called into the office talked to one another, from time to time, and all those separate, small conversations had a common, recurring subject, a certain “number 4”, one of the first numbers of BLM. Each time it was mentioned, people looked towards the left end of the bifurcated corridor. Rumors said that, in order to get to its office, one had to turn left yet again and keep walking, but nobody knew anything less vague. It was said that one time some angry workers tried to get to his office: they had just been made redundant and, instead of going the right way, as they were supposed to, they headed left, to find number 4’s office and seek answers and revenge, but they never came back and nobody ever asked anything about them.

Working hand in hand with the head of Human Resources, number 4, the archivist, was often visited by him, who always brought along a thick pile of files. Some said that he was the only one who knew exactly where the archivist’s office was and that he was his only link to the exterior. Aside from that, nobody had ever heard or seen number 4, and nobody knew if he had ever left his office. 

***

Three invariable, immutable sounds could be heard in the round, tall, but crammed room: the buzz of powerful white neon lights, which were always turned on, being the room’s only source of light – it had no windows at all; the noise of the broken air vent in the ceiling, which barely pumped air in the jammed room; and finally, the mechanical, powerful, sudden sound of a stamp which incessantly counted page after page. The archivist was so sure-handed, that even a metronome could not compare with the precision and regularity of his stamping. Page after page, he quickly went over number 25671’s file, numbering his entire life, using the stamp the same way a judge would use his mallet: he stamped his birth certificate; his I.D. card; his high school and college diplomas; his official transcripts; his military book; his marriage certificate; his son’s birth certificate; his discharge papers. After he had finished with his file, number 4 put it away without even looking at it – it ended up on the top of the pile of those who had just been made redundant – and moved on to the next one.

The room was filled with heaps of folders which were placed in the smallest corner: in cases, on cases, all over the floor, piled up in heaps that reached the ceiling. If he had ever bothered to look around him, he would have seen himself besieged by files – but he didn’t. His eyes were always staring at the file that needed his stamping. The only time he ever looked anywhere else was when he needed to pick up the new files which were brought to him. Other than that, he knew his duty so well, that his hands independently took care of everything. As for the new folders that kept coming in regularly, they were brought to him by the head of H.R. every Wednesday – he’d knock on the door, to alert number 4. After the archivist heard the signal, he’d stamp 10 more pages before he went and get the trolley with the new files. He’d find it at the threshold, standing on some thick, old water pipes and contained both the usual piles, as well as his weekly wage.

The archivist and the head of H.R. only saw each other once and it was said that they’d only see each other one more time, but number 4 had stopped thinking about that moment long ago.

Even though new filed employees were brought in every Wednesday to be disposed of, the room never seemed to be any more crowded than it already was: the air inside that chamber was so wet, that it gradually softened the old files, slowly turning them into a yellowish paste. Pile after pile, the papers dissolved and leaked slowly into the drainage hole.

***

In the crammed, narrow, tall room, the noises made by the neon lights and the stamp were louder than usual, because the air vent had broken completely and stopped working. Yet number 4 kept numbering page after page, without breaking his rhythm, without looking elsewhere besides the papers in front of him. As the time passed, the noises coming from the neon lights and from the stamp were again just as loud as when the air vent was working, because another type of sound had found its way into the room: growing in intensity, it was a terrible wheeze, uncannily alike to the one the air vent used to make. When it first began, it was almost indistinguishable and number 4 noticed nothing, but as the freshly stamped files kept piling up on the archivist’s desk, that timid sound grew into something rough, abrupt, louder and louder; soon enough, it was louder than all the other sounds in the room; soon enough, it interfered with the stamp’s rhythm, making it weak, hesitant, powerless, irregular.

Hands trembling, the archivist threw it on the desk and then he tried to loosen his collar as quickly as possible, to set his neck free – his neck which was moaning terribly, uncontrollably – to liberate his chest which was violently gasping for air. Eyes wide opened, blinking and rotating like a mad man’s, with his hands still clinging to his shirt, number 4 desperately kept looking for something. He got up and started moving about, stumbling over the folders, breaking their order, mixing them in one chaotic pile. Trying to find his balance by hanging on to the heaps of files which slipped as soon as he touched them, gasping for air, he kept looking for something. When he finally looked up at the ceiling, he saw the air vent. He then got up, feet on his desk, and tried to fix it. Just as he made it work again, he stepped on an enormous, slimy file which just happened to be on his desk and he fell flat on the cold, cemented floor.

After he came back to his senses, the man got up, sat on his seat and took a deep breath. He rubbed his bones, which started aching, he wiped the narrow trace of blood off his forehead, he massaged his temples, ending up holding his head, keeping his eyes closed. He then remembered something and looked around his desk, until he discovered the folder which had made him slip and fall – it was so heavy and sticky that he almost could not move it. It did not have any sort of code, nor any numbers or letters by which he could have recognized it. He also could not recall ever seeing it.

When he opened it, he saw that it had already been completely stamped. The first few hundred pages were almost incomprehensible, because the wet air had dissolved the printing, making it unreadable. As he kept on turning the pages and as the writing became clearer, the man’s eyes grew more and more restless, alert, big, as if they wanted to pop out. He figured out that all those who had been archived there had been fired a long time ago, but what he did not understand was why they all had the same number, the number 4. Page after page, the employees were different, but the number remained hauntingly recurrent. Moreover, their files were different from the ones he had stamped so far, because the ones he had just found had no mentioning of how long the employees have worked at BLM, before they got fired. He then realized that even he could not remember for how long he had been working there – that was when he started loosening his collar again, gasping for air.

Wiping out his forehead to clean up his blood, he turned back to the file, frantically turning the pages until he stopped abruptly: he had got to his own papers and they had been already numbered. Before he started reading them, he stared at his own photo, at his own face and he couldn’t remember when was the last time he’d seen himself. He turned a few more pages, just to convince himself that he was right, that the file kept on going, others having already taken his place, their pages already having been stamped, even though…

He didn’t have time to turn back to his own pages, because he was interrupted by a gentle knock on the door. Turning pale, with that knock so violently pulsating inside his head that he had to open the door, he closed the folder. He had to leave the room and follow the head of H.R. What he didn’t know and what he never found out, just as none of them before him, or after him knew either, was that everything had been planned out by the head of H.R.: he was the one who had broken the air vent and had placed the folder on his desk, so the man would step on it, fall, get hurt and then read it, just before he’d have been made redundant. Company’s policy.