'Another Long Stretch of Continuous Soft Rock'

The third-place story

The machine maintains a relentless cadence, disseminating paper over paper, over and over, the growing stack like a white monolith in the high-capacity finisher tray. Above, the fluorescent bulbs hum, and their light moves down and through the loosened paper particles drifting along sound waves from the radio's stretch after stretch of continuous soft rock.

The CopyZone manager pats his shirt pocket and finds the torn paper from the opened end of a Rolaids pack. He tears the paper further away, removes an antacid, and slowly places it in his mouth.

Mid-chew: "Tony, I'm pretty sure we're stuck in a time loop."

I finish taping the bottom of a corrugated box, flip it upright, and turn to look at him. "Didn't you say that already?"

Rick frowns and swivels his chair away from me, toward his computer, toward the screensaver displaying a picture of his twin daughters. "I probably did," he says, picking up the phone. "And for all I know, it could have been the millionth time."

He dials a number and swivels suddenly back to face me. "And you? You don't have the slightest feeling that you've said that same smartass response before?" Holding the receiver to his ear but the mouthpiece askew, he asks, "Not even a little?"

Meatloaf's on the radio, insisting there is but one unnameable thing he would do for love.

"While this is definitely not the first time we've heard this song today, I feel pretty confident that we're not in a time loop."

Rick starts to respond, but then quickly repositions the mouthpiece. "Yes. Yes, I'll hold."

CopyZone operates in the basement of the Capital Bank building, with the majority of the work coming from governmental contracts. Very few walk-ins provide interruptions from the routines of making copies, collating, binding manuscripts, inventorying paper, and arguing over Magic 98.9 and DJ Joshua Seals' alleged smooth sounds.

I'm making copies for some wing of the Attorney General's office, possibly an employee manual, possibly incantations for transforming the backs of the reader's eyeballs to a pattern of pure, snowy noise.

Meanwhile, Rick fluctuates between stewing in his chair, on hold with the Xerox technicians, and pacing in front of the Xerox Docucolor 242, listening for the familiar sound of a paper jam. The click and grind of the interior wheels coming to an abrupt stop initiates a repeating pattern: Rick sighs. Rick mutters profanity. Rick opens the front of the copier. Rick removes the wadded paper. Rick closes the copier. Paces, returns to chair, holds phone to ear, hears jam, repeat.

If his feeling is true, he's been doing this for days, months, possibly years. If our time here continuously resets, then he's travelled miles – a seemingly unknowable amount of them, all in a paper-dusted basement. He's cursed Xerox to a heretofore unknown level of Hell. The acid in his stomach never subsides, and his year-old daughters never get older.

At some point, Rick's call goes through to an operator. "But, I don't understand how it's related to the stapling. It jams before it ever reaches the stapler." Rick's free hand, upturned, gestures toward the phone, back to me, back to the phone, an incredulous pantomime of "Can you believe the words coming from the other end?"

I shrug and remove a handful of manuals from the monolith, stacking them on the far side of the table next to the copier. On the closer side, offset stacks of paper wait to be loaded into the copier's trays. Paper in, paper out, paper in.

When I moved to the city six months ago, I took the first job I could find. I had no printing experience, and he had no help, so I assume Rick hired the first person he could find.

He was chewing Rolaids then, too.

Prior to this job, I dug ditches as a member of a backhoe crew that installed septic systems in the desert. My boss always kept a pistol in the cab. The first rounds were rat-shot, followed by what he called "the real stuff."

I saw him several times lean out of the cab of the backhoe, one hand still on the wheel, and fire at rattlesnakes in the underbrush. Another time, driving home in the dark after a long day, we must have run over a dozen of the snakes as they basked on the still-warm blacktop. The busted-up interior of the diesel truck would rattle so loudly I could hardly hear myself think, but the snakes' bodies popped like gunshots beneath the tires.

Rick lifts his glasses to rub his eyes, his forefinger and thumb ending in a pinch on the bridge of his nose. "Do you seriously recommend I staple a thousand brochures by hand? That's your solution?" Rick's grip on the receiver leaves his knuckles colorless. "No, I understand that. But I don't think you understand my position and my deadline."

The promotional poster above Rick's head depicts a disheveled and toner-covered man collapsed in frustration and with pieces of a destroyed desktop printer in his upturned, desperate hands. He appears to exist in a vacuum, a colorless, purgatorial white. It makes the smears of cyan and magenta on his cheek all the starker in their contrast. The copy below reads: "Leave your frustrations and fears behind, and enter ... the CopyZone! A world of quality and affordable convenience awaits you!"

When Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time" starts to play on the radio, I go to change the station, but I see Rick in my peripheral vision frantically waving an arm. When I look at him, he shakes his head and mouths the words, "I like this song."

"Well, does the technician have any sort of ETA? Are you kidding me? He's been an hour away for two hours now." Rick slams the phone down, and its plastic faceplate pops off, leaving it hanging over the edge.

He grabs a stapler, and per advice from the Xerox operator, reprograms the printer and removes the stapler setting. The first brochure prints smoothly and is deposited in the finisher tray. Rick stands in front of the machine, shoulders sagging, right hand clutching the stapler. The silver lining of the antacid package protrudes from the pocket of his blue CopyZone polo.

The second and third brochures print smoothly.

The phone rings, and Rick ignores it, angrily fixated on the machine. I start to walk toward the phone when he says, "Don't answer that. It's Xerox, and I don't want talk to them."

"Okay. Um, if you want to switch for a while and do these brochures, I'll keep watch on those."

Rick begins to staple the completed copies by hand, but he doesn't say a word. His jaw pulsates. I've been that angry plenty of times, and I've seen grown men throw shovels across a distance, throw punches at walls. But digging ditches, if tempers flared, we could always dig harder, faster. Soon enough, you'd tire out. All that earth, still there, was like a reminder that all your madness wasn't much of anything. But here? Slamming phones is one thing. I guess we could run up the ramp, through the double doors, across the lobby of the bank, avoid a concerned security guard's tackle, and burst out into the city street, screaming about reams of paper and jams and stapling mechanisms. Maybe we should.

"Actually," he says, "If you could take over stapling for a minute, I'm going to call my wife. It looks like I'll be here a while."

"You know, I can stay late if you need me to help out. Besides, if we are in a time loop, you'll never really miss dinner."

The sound that comes out of his mouth isn't a laugh, exactly. I'm not really sure what it is.

And then the copier jams.

When the stapler hits the wall, its internal spring flies left, and the staples fly everywhere. By the time its ergonomic finger grip hits the carpet, Rick's already opened the front of the copier and is jamming his heel into the tray's release handle. It's plastic, so, obviously, it breaks, and he nearly loses his balance when it goes.

It's in the arc of his half-fall, and the way his forearm lands just below the copier's user interface, that I'm struck with the feeling of déjà vu.

The charged mercury vapor from above flickers, and the paper dust and ink particulates hang motionless. I imagine our ears, noses, eyes, mouths, and pores clogged with them, and the air conditioning system constantly recycling the same air over and into us.

I mouth along with the radio's transmission: "I'm Joshua Seals, your coworker here to get you through the day with another long stretch of continuous soft rock, on Magic 98.9!"

I hear Rick saying we're in a time loop, over and over, and yeah, I hear myself making that same smartass remark. I see miles of tape over a million boxes, while Rick holds, holds, yes, continues to hold.

And yet, I also see the chance for time to make sense again. It's a little like double vision, like I'm drunk and looking into the future. But it's more like those Magic Eye pictures, with the repeating patterns that are nothing but frustrating until the eyes and brain are properly trained. Properly diverged, the eyes perceive the depth. Reality comes into focus.

It's all perspective, and unfortunately, the image in focus is Rick getting fired.

But now? Now he pats his shirt pocket and finds the torn paper from the opened end of a Rolaids pack. He tears the paper further away, removes an antacid, and slowly places it in his mouth.

Mid-chew: "Tony, I'm pretty sure we're –"

Meatloaf's croon turns to the crackle of inter-frequency static. I take my hand off the radio dial.

"Hey, I was listening to that," he says, still chewing.

"No, no you weren't. Adult contemporary isn't for listening. It's for background. It's audio wallpaper. It's white noise."

Rick frowns and stands up from his chair. "Are you okay?"

"Rick, do you really want to be unjamming a copier for all eternity, waiting for some technician that will never come?"

He considers this, and then walks toward the phone. He picks it up and dials a number. "Sure," he says. "I'll hold." He looks at his daughters on the monitor, back to the phone, back to me.

Then he sighs and hangs up.

"Honestly, I don't really even want to be doing it now."

"But you are, and you probably will be for a very long time. Or, many, many short times, whatever. You've been trying to tell me that we're in a time loop, and you're right."

"I said that already?"

"Yes. So, either we're going to hear Meatloaf, Cyndi Lauper, and Clapton after he stopped doing cocaine, forever and ever, or this whole thing will straighten out. And if it does, I'd prefer it straighten out positively."

"But I've got kids. I'm not going to up and leave this job."

"What if you got fired?"

"What? Why would I do that?"

"You're going to throw a fit and kick that color copier apart."

"That seems a little ... drastic. Let me just get them back on the phone," he says. "Surely they'll have a suggestion."

"They're going to blame the stapling."

"What? But it's jamming before it even –"

"I know. And then they'll suggest –"

"– they'll suggest I hand-staple all of the brochures."

We stand inside CopyZone and listen to the radio static. While I'm no longer comfortable with approximations of time, we stare at each other for what feels like forever. Rick removes his glasses and holds them up to the fluorescent light, squinting.

"Well," he says, untucking his polo and wiping the lenses, "Any suggestions?"

"I'm not sure what the solution is. I'm kind of new to this time loop thing."

The sound that comes out of his mouth isn't a laugh, exactly. I'm not really sure what it is.

And then the copier jams.

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