“I wish I had more time”. Claire stared out at the audience, a sea of people she barely knew. Claire had not wanted a retirement party. She had not wanted to retire. Claire was happy at the corporation. She had been happy there for the past 37 years. Claire had hoped she would die at her desk and not alone in her home. Claire did not fear dying but she did not like the thought of her body melting into her bed or the sofa as she slowly decomposed without anyone in the world having noticed or cared that she had gone. Not that she particularly cared for the attention or affection of others. She never had. She didn’t even have a pet. She had found that she was quite content as a solitary creature. It had been suggested many times that she get a cat as they were also solitary creatures that did not seem to care for or need the affection or attention of others. Claire had always found the suggestion a bit ridiculous. If the cats and I are happy alone, why force us to be together?
Claire had found the corporation shortly after graduation from university where she had studied library science. She had been drawn to the idea of working in a library. She had always enjoyed herself there. It was quiet and orderly and fostered her independence. She imagined spending her day reshelving books, finding that there was a place for everything and that she could put everything in its place. As she advanced her studies she began to realize that a librarian did a lot more than shelve books and enforce silence. For all its repute as a quiet place the library actually had quite a lot of talking. It dawned on her that she was expected to interact with and be kind to the general public. The thought made her break out. She couldn’t imagine spending her days answering questions about where to find a magazine or how the xerox worked. She hated the idea of having to extract fines for late returns. She did not wish to read to the elderly or to children. She had been wondering what she would do with her life, a librarian that didn’t particularly like the library, when she saw the job listing for the corporation. It was like it was written for her. “Do you enjoy collating, organizing, and maintaining records? Do you enjoy working independently? Can you thrive in an environment generally free of interaction with other people?” If she had made a wish list it would have read like that job listing.
Claire had been hired on the spot being more than qualified. The hiring manager made a note of her impeccable credentials and the fact that she was shy, avoided eye contact, and generally seemed uninterested in him as a human. He also noted that she rearranged the magazines in the lobby by date, subject, and relevance to corporation interests. She took to the work quickly. Her domain was subbasement three, a vast, cold, dry, windowless space. Row upon row of shelves filled with boxes that contained the records of the corporation dating back to its inception nearly half a century ago. The previous generations of archivists did not have the training or natural tendency toward organization and isolation that Claire possessed. For the most part they had been happy to receive the boxes that had arrived the previous evening and put them on the nearest shelf.
Claire was not like the previous generations of archivists. The previous occupants of this post had left after they began to develop vitamin D deficiencies and had begun to talk to the walls, the lack of human contact affecting their sanity. Claire thrived in the austere and lonely environment. She started by rearranging all of the boxes. She carefully unpacked each, making note not just of the date of storage but the content of the files. She began to move them around, just like she had been taught, the content, the date, the author, all taken into account. She dusted and cleaned making sure the records would last. It was all she could have ever wanted. And when she was finished there was a place for everything and everything was in its place.
Claire had not been interested in computers. They were relatively new when she went to school. She had taken a course as it was required for her degree. She liked the organization of the punch cards. It felt like a wonderful exercise in filing. She wondered how Melvil Dewey would handle the task of keeping the cards orderly and ready to run. Other than that though she had not seen the appeal. She could do math, the kind she would like to do anyway, just as quickly by hand. There was no need to feed a bunch of cards through a reader to help her balance her checkbook or figure out how to halve the recipes in the dining for two cookbooks her mother had given her with the hope that she would use it as intended. She had not seen the appeal or the power that the computer possessed. After the first few years on the job she noticed a change in the records room. The handwritten or typed papers she was used to seeing became printed pages on the distinctive green and white computer printer paper. Then Carl arrived. Carl was a friendly and talkative man of about 40 years, with a scruffy beard and long hair in a ponytail. “I’m here to install your computer! And teach you all about it”. Carl was everything that Claire was not. Carl was everything Claire could not stand. It was a difficult few weeks for Claire as she had to learn about the computer. She had to learn how to type, enter data, and store files. She had to learn how to make the computer do her job for her. She realized that not only was this computer new and uncomfortable, but it was there to take her job and she was being told to teach it how.
It took longer than Claire had thought it would. It wasn’t weeks, or months, but several years before the computer system was able to do her job. Claire took pride in that. She was happy knowing that she could not be so easily replaced. She had wondered what lay in store for her. She had wondered if they would allow her to remain in the records room. Would she be allowed to sit with the computer in case it needed her? Unlike Carl, the computer was quiet and efficient. It never asked about her weekend. The computer never wanted to know if she liked Italian food. As much as she did not like the computer it made for a decent office mate.
Claire received a letter from HR. She was being retired. It felt very much like being fired, Claire had thought, even though the letter was very clear. “You are not being fired,” it read. Instead, she was being given an exciting opportunity. Her years of service and dedication to the corporation meant a lot and they wanted to extend to her two years of severance so that she would be able to tap into her 401k and pension with no loss of income. She would maintain her health, dental, and vision benefits until she qualified for Medicare. She was, the letter said, “Retired”. Claire did not want to be retired. She did not fancy taking holidays. She did not wish to do anything but maintain the records. They were her life’s work. They were her. She felt she would become as useless and unorganized as the files had been when she first arrived if she did not have them to maintain.
She tried to fight the inevitable but there was no stopping the future from coming. And the future at the corporation was one without an archivist. It was a future without Claire. The corporation planned a retirement party. Claire was, after all, one of the longest serving employees. Claire had protested but it was decided that she should not be so modest and just accept the gratitude of the corporation. Any employee of her caliber was owed a celebration when they retired. They did not care that Claire did not want to retire. They did not care that Claire did not want a party. The corporation wanted to signal the end of an era of paper records. They wanted to celebrate the end of the need for people like Claire.
“I wish I had more time”. Claire said it again. The crowd had chanted “Speech! Speech!” and cheered as Claire stood to take the microphone. When she spoke, they fell silent, an uneasy tension crept through the room. Everyone had assumed this was a joyous occasion. There were balloons. And cake. No one knew that Claire did not wish to retire. No one knew she was being forced to leave. The second time she said it the crowd began to look down at their shoes, or out the window of the conference room. Everyone was uncomfortable. Then Claire put the microphone down and left.
Claire went through the records room a final time. She made sure everything was clean and orderly. She made sure everything was just how it should be. She switched off the computer monitor and shut out the lights. She sat, in the dark, slowly sipping her bitter tea. The taste of the hemlock overpowering the sugar and milk she had added. After some time, she began to feel herself slipping away. She was content, knowing that she would die at her desk, as she had always wanted. A place for everything and everything in its place.