Authority Files

 

I drink too much; I’m partly drunk now.  Mary left me last week; she told me I needed to talk to somebody: a psychiatrist.  I was doing fine up until a month ago when the nightmares started again.  Started drinking again, and finally got drunk enough to tell her the story.  She thinks I’m nuts.  It only took her a week to leave me after I told her.

Go to a shrink?  I’d rather kill myself with the booze.  They wouldn’t believe me either.  Things like that don’t happen, can’t happen.  No white rooms for me.  Computer rooms?  They’re mostly all white.  I’m even writing on a computer.  I shouldn’t be writing this.  It can get me this way.  He’s dead, isn’t he?  I should know, I killed him.  But that damn machine is still out there.

I’m drunk enough.  I can write this.  Maybe it will help me forget it.

It started in college, working in the library.  That’s on a computer most of the time inputing bibliographic records into a large nationwide system.  All big libraries are computerized these days.   They don’t even have card catalogs anymore.  They’re linked into networks of holdings.  You can punch in a title, and if one library doesn’t have it, another one does.

So I had a lot of library experience and decided to go to library school.  That’s what they like to call an MLS in the library business, a Master of Library Science.  That’s where they taught me about authority files.  Authority files keep all those computer records straight.  Uniform titles, authors, series: everything neat and tidy.  Just check your authority file.

I was fresh out of graduate school, looking for my first job.  But times were tight for librarians.  Nobody was hiring in reference work, and I was tired of cataloging.   So when I heard about a new bibliographic network starting in the Pacific Northwest, I applied.  When I took the call for an interview, I was down and out.  There were only a couple hundred left in the account.  So I had to follow through.  The rent had to be paid; I had to eat.

The network was based in Seattle.  It always rains in Seattle, at least that’s what everybody says.  The first time I saw Seattle it was sunny, warm, with blue skies.  The interview went well, and I was offered the job.  It was checking records against an authority file just like the records I input back in college.  I was a natural.  I took it.

You have to make sure those records are all the same or they get all messed up.  Too many ways to spell a name, too many open entries.  And you have to close those entries when they are finished.  You have to close those entries.

Do you know what Seattle reminds me of now?  Something washed up on a beach.  Some huge pale sea-beast with tentacles reaching out into the dark forests and mists of the Sound.  It’s something that doesn’t quite belong there. A modern technological wonder somehow linked to ancient forces that twist the finest ideas along dark paths.  It’s evil.  Like that white room where they put me to work, with a couple of computer terminals, me on one and him on another.

At first I didn’t think of him as strange.  A spindly little clerical worker, yes, a bit of a nerd, yes, but just a guy.  His name was Drew.

He was about forty I guess, thin greying hair, black plastic glasses, and fond of those button up sweaters you parents always made you wear when you were a kid.  I guess he was always cold.  Computers need to be cool.  Drew was cold inside anyway.  After we were introduced by our supervisor, he never said a word except to answer my questions about work.

It started to get on my nerves.  I didn’t know anybody in the town.  He was my closet contact to a human being in that little room with the computers.  It started to seem like the whole world.  So I started to talk to him, started to work my way through that cold exterior.  We didn’t have anything in common except books.  That’s where I stared.  If I knew what I know now, I would have asked him to a Seahawks game and put him right off.

We talked American writers, English writers, French writers: good writers and bad writers.  We didn’t really connect on who we liked, but literature was at lease a beginning.  He liked Wordsworth, I liked Coleridge.  When I brought up Poe, Drew brought up Hawthorne.  Fitzgerald brought up Hemingway, Cather made him talk of Anderson.  Baudelaire turned him to Voltaire.  He was kind of stuffy in what he liked, nothing too far out of  line with the world as he saw it.

I finally asked him out for a drink after work.  To my surprise, he excepted.  We ended up at a little dive near the U district.  It was quiet that night, we could hear each other.  Before we went in, he stuck a quarter into a paper-stand for the evening edition.  He set it carefully folded between us on the bar, occasionally glancing at it as we talked over our first couple of drinks.  Eventually there was a lull in the conversation.

Drew picked up the paper and turned straight to the obituaries without even glancing at the front page.  Scanning the column of people who had died, his eyes stopped at a name.  His lips curled up into a smile.  Setting it in front of me, he tapped his finger on the notice.

“Good, I’m glad he’s dead.  Never liked him anyway,” he said with definite glee, no remorse what so ever.  His actions were those of man almost expecting what he had found.  It was a stupid thought, but it did cross my mind.  He must have heard it on the radio or something.

I looked at the name.  I’d heard of it somewhere before.  Reading quickly, it turned out that I probably had.  He had been a minor writer over the last ten or twenty years.  He had turned to politics for a time in the sixties, little protests and court cases over the war, women’s liberation: that kind of thing.

“Hell, I thought he was dead years ago,” I commented.  “I guess I’ll have to close his entry in the database.”

“Humph,” he breathed out, “don’t even bother.”

It was just a statement of disgust, but thinking back there was something else there.  We closed out our evening early and he went his way, I went mine.

When I arrived at work the next day, I sat down with my first cup of coffee in front of the machine.  I glanced over at the empty station where my fellow drone should have been sitting.  He was a little late today.  No big deal, he usually stayed late.  I started sorting through the set-works.  Then I remembered the obituary from last night.

I keyed in the name.  It came up readily enough with about half a dozen entries attached.  He wasn’t prolific or anything.  I was about to put his date of death in after the little dash following his birth date, but it was already there.  Somebody had beaten me to it.  I looked over at the empty terminal.  He couldn’t have.  And there was nobody else in the office that would have.  Just a strange screw-up I guessed.  Like me, somebody else had figured that he was dead years ago.  But it was this years date?

Drew wandered in about an hour late.  He looked a little worse for wear from the night before.  The man wasn’t use to drinking.  It was break time before he looked like he could be spoken to.  I told him about the closing date.

“I told you not to bother,” was his answer.  “I closed it yesterday morning.”

I still thought he had heard it on the radio or TV, on the way to work or something, and shrugged it off.  I went  back to correcting records, and sending them back if they were too messed up.  AACR2 has to be stuck to, there are rules to find pigeon holes.

After lunch, Drew was looking a lot better.  We started to talk about one of my favorite writers from the sixties.  He had recently been rediscovered by a whole new generation.  He was on the supermarket shelves.  That must have annoyed him no end, being in a supermarket was counter to all he wrote about.

Of course my co-worker hated him with a passion.  Our discussion grew a little hot.   With a final jibe about what a crummy writer the man was, and how stupid the people were who actually read  him, the man called me around to his side of the work station.  He pointed to the screen of his terminal.

Drew had called up the authority file record on the CRT.  There was my author’s name all neatly outlined in little green electrons on the screen.  He had placed his cursor next to the dash by his birth date.  The man typed in the current year as his death, making him dead according to the computer.  A totally contented look filled his face.  I frowned my displeasure.

“Ha, ha, ha,” I let fall in a totally bored way.  He was pissing me off the little jerk.  I went back to work, and we didn’t say anything to each other for the rest of the day.  I didn’t plan to say much to him for the rest of my life.  I’d just about decided he was too much of a geek, and I’d rather be bored and lonely.  I went home at five, ate some food, had some beer over the tube, and fell asleep to late night static.

After a shower in the morning, I pulled in the paper from the concrete and wrought iron “veranda” outside my front door.  That’s what I liked to call the walk-up to my one bedroom apartment.  The paper boy was getting to be a better shot by then.  I was pouring my coffee when the article on the front page made me spill it.

It was the freakiest thing that had ever happened to me.  That writer was dead as hell, some kind of car accident.

“Weird coincidence,” I thought out loud.

That was the sort of thing I would gladly have drunk away the night talking to my friends about back in college.  But I didn’t have any friends here, just work, and Drew.  I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of mentioning it.  I didn’t have to.

“I’m glad he’s dead too,” was what he hit me with first thing in the morning.  He had the same smile he had back in the bar that night.

“I’m not,” I answered as indifferently as I could.  I was not happy about how happy he was.  “It was strange the way it happened though.”

“Bullshit.” Drew said firmly.  “I killed the fucker.”

‘He’s crazy as well as a loon,’ I said to myself.  He must have known what I was thinking.

“I can prove it.  Who do you want me to kill.  As long as they’re in the machine, I can kill them.  All I have to do is close the entry.”

“Sure . . .” I hesitated.  I decided to humor him.  “Kill the president you jerk.”

“No, I like him.  I only kill the people I want to.”

I didn’t say anything else to him.  I worked on the machine for the rest of the day, took long breaks, and generally avoided him until I could get out of there.  He was totally nuts.  The squirrel had finally cracked up in his chosen profession.  I decided then and there, I wanted a nice quiet library to work in.  I wasn’t going to wind up like this freak.  I made it home with out talking to him.  There was a bottle around and beer in the fridge.   I forgot about the day fast.

That night the dream started.  I woke up sweating in Seattle and it wasn’t the humidity.  It took place at work.  Drew was sitting across the way from me doing his job.  I was closing entries on my terminal.  I glanced down at what I was doing.  When I looked up again, he was the skulled face of Death.  I go back to work, try and ignore him.  When I look up again his eyes are staring into me.  There are no eyes, just empty sockets, but I know that they are looking at me.  It scares me.  I decide not to look up again.  I close more entries.  Then I look down at my own hands; they are bones.  They rattle on the keys.  I have become Death.  I woke up and had to check if my hands still had flesh on them.  I had to go into the bathroom and look in the mirror to see if I still had a face.

It  was just a dream, I knew that.  But I didn’t get back to sleep until it was nearly light outside.  I woke up tired, made coffee.  Drank it while I took a shower, and pulled on some cloths.  When I pulled in the paper from outside, I didn’t even look at it, just let it sit on the kitchen table.  I wasn’t afraid or anything, just didn’t have the time.

When I arrived at work, Drew was already at his terminal.  He didn’t say anything, and I wasn’t about to.  The days passed like this.  If it wasn’t work related, we didn’t talk.  And during those days, I never opened the newspaper.  I began to think I was afraid to look.  I was running down fast.  Drinking helped, but I always woke up with a hangover.  When I didn’t drink, I woke up terrified.  It was starting to show in my work.  I was making mistakes.  This couldn’t go on.

One morning I decide that what I was feeling was all bullshit.  I walked deliberately to the front door of my apartment and ripped open the paper and started reading it.  On the second page, the coffee cup froze half way to my lips.  Another writer was dead.  This time a poet from the beat generation of the fifties.  I didn’t want to go to work that day.  I called in sick.  But that only worked for one day.  I had to face the evil little man tomorrow.  He had become the “evil little man” in my mind.  I was really cracking up.

It was just a coincidence.  I kept telling myself this.  I would go to work the next day and everything would be fine.  He would just be a clerical worker.  When I went to sleep, the dream came again.  My hands became white, bony claws on the keys.  I think I woke up screaming, but the apartment was quiet.  There was no one there to tell me otherwise.

I drove to work the next day telling myself that I was just going to ignore him.

‘He isn’t going to get to me with his crazy power trip.   It is a figment of his twisted mind.  If it gets any worse, I will tell my supervisor that the guy has obviously snapped and let him take care of it.’  That is what my rational mind was saying.  The tired side of me, the dream side of me, was shouting that I should keep driving, turn south, find some beach with sun.

It had been raining for what seems like two months solid.  When I pulled into the company parking lot, I sat for a minute listening to the wipers clear my vision.  Then the mist would cloud it over again.  I turned off the engine and climbed out into the damp, grey mist and black asphalt.  The worms were all on the surface so they wouldn’t drown.  I had to avoid them as I walked in the side entrance of the office.

He looked up when I sat down at my terminal.  Drew had  been waiting for me.

“You were sick yesterday,” he said with the same smile from the bar.  “Did you see the paper?”

“No,” I said curtly trying to hide the fact that I had by staring into my screen.  He knew that I was lying.

“I killed him too,” he pointed out with a giggle.  Then he stood up and headed off to the break room with an empty coffee cup in hand.

“Drop dead asshole,” I yelled after him.  He glanced over his shoulder and giggled again as he went for his coffee.

I dropped my hands from the keyboard and stared into my screen.  My mind had gone, too little sleep, no one to talk to, I don’t know.  The image of my hands turning to fleshless bone filled my head.  I began to type.  I dropped out of set-work screens into the main authority file.  I made up a record for a new author, filled in his birth date.  I glanced up at the break room door.

“Drop dead asshole,” I whispered.  Then I filled in the death date and hit the enter key.  There was a moment of quiet, a slight hush of soundless automation stopping.  And then the sound of a coffee cup falling on the concrete floor in the break room: a cry of a concerned staff member.  I didn’t bother to look.

Putting on my coat from the back of the chair, I stared down at the screen.  I glanced at the flesh covering my hands, and then kicked out the terminal screen with a soft, electrical implosion.  I left by the side door and never went back.

I was doing ok, until the dreams started again.

 

published in Fugue: The Univ. of Idaho Literary Digest, Spring/Summer, 1992, #5

first internet publishing BlogSpot.com, 1/4/2015.

 

 

 

 

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About johnsmithiiimxiii

John Smith, IIMXIII is the avatar of an award winning poet, artist, etc. who still lives in the Palouse country of the Pacific NW. He has not received much notice with his prose . . . but as his avatar, I hope that he keeps plugging along.

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