OVERTIME

 

All of us were trapped in the basement of a large corporation. Perhaps trapped isn’t the right word—we did get to go home at the end of the day—but our shifts lasted so long, required such acute, yet redundant attention, that after work we collapsed into bed, our dreams returning us to the hissing thrash of assembly line levers, the groan of conveyor belts and the sour stare of fluorescent lighting, so that it felt as if we never left.

We called our workplace the Underworld.

Trapped as we were, none of us actually knew what we were making. Our tasks were all so reductive, so discrete. We’d never seen the final product. Even Horatio, who’d worked in upper management. Had a corner office and a bonsai tree before his demotion. Linda too—despite lying spread eagle on a bed of Excel sheets and memos in her secretary days. Or even Ria, who used to hack into the company files.

I certainly didn’t know. I’d been re-assigned to the basement just for poor performance.

To feel better, we often told one another that there were worse things than endless toil. I won’t bore you with the details of our financial duress. But I will say that as we sweated through mindless subterranean tasks, our eyes burning, our lungs asbestos laced, we couldn’t help wondering, Is there an end? Is there anything else?

We thought about death. The trouble was, we also knew we were no longer living.

Our minds stiffened, atrophied. There was only a lever to pull, a button to push. Then again. On and on and on. More bodies filtered down among us. Banished, dismissed, corrupted. We lost track of names. We started calling everyone Sam, because it was unisex.

Was there anything else? With futures promising nothing but more of the present, we thought of the past. Over the steaming gale of machinery, we fought to unearth, to aggregate our memories. Horatio’s mother’s old-world lullabies. The black sand of a volcanic beach where Linda learned to surf. The day Ria adopted an injured crow. My first bite of a garden tomato. Our memories—swathed in the mists of longed-for first kisses, the ghosts of virginities and our jaunty, youthful expectations—all of them congealed into something larger, something vast and solid, until finally it began to feel as though what we were making, what we were fabricating with all those levers and buttons, was, in fact, a recollective Pangaea—waiting just beyond the basement—as if the past was a place we might someday visit.

This understanding allowed time to pass with a little more grace.


Allegra Hyde's stories and essays appear in North American Review, Ninth Letter, Lumina, Bellevue Literary Review, Grist Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with fellow Woodrow Wilson impersonator, Alexander McElroy.