By Susannah Clark
You just spilled chili on my words. You’re sitting in the homestyle cooking room, rehashing the number of freshman girls that grinded on you last night to your bros. You’re talking with your mouth full, and spittle of ground beef and kidney beans is spraying all over my voice. There is electric yellow cheese sauce smeared against the name plate; “The Mary Washington Bullet” now reads “The Mary Washington Bull.” The douchebag to your right makes a “That’s What She Said” joke and you slam your cup of Wild Cherry Pepsi on the table, splashing chestnut corn syrup all over the pull quote from the university president.
I spent 30 hours in the office this week editing that place mat. Making sure every comma stays within the quotation mark. Making sure every month is abbreviated. Making sure there are periods in between “a.m.” and “p.m.” All so you can have fresh lining for your cat’s litter box. All so you can leave raunchy anonymous comments on our website. All so you can bitch to each other about how “our campus newspaper sucks.”
As you wait in line for tropical stir-fry in Seacobeck Dining Hall, I’m a floor below you, typing and clicking and burying my face in my hands. I can hear your feet, stomping and sauntering from the sushi bar to Mama Jean’s pasta station. Uggs and Crocs and Converse-All-Stars pitter patter as I try to think of a euphemism for “budget cut.” Your grease-stained floor is my ceiling. When dining services employees push metal carts full of dirty dishes and utensils across the floor, it sounds like thunder rumbling above me.
If you were to enter the student newspaper office, you would first see five glowing computer screens welcome you. There are a total of 42 power outlets, lining the middle of the walls like a paint trim. The grey office chairs dance around the room on their rollers, sliding up to a different computer every few hours or so. There are overly tacked bulletin boards and rows of locked file cabinets with keys lost years ago. The white board on the left wall has a creature called “Dick Butt” drawn on it with red marker. His name suits him well.
There’s a scratchy couch in the corner, of unknown origin. The mysterious white stains could be from last night or last decade, or maybe both. The walls, the color of smudged newsprint, swallow you. There are no windows, only the words of editors past and present printed on curling, yellowing paper and taped to the wall. The artificial light is harsh and exposing. Every blackhead on my nose, every tint of purple under my eyes, every chap in my lip is sharpened. I am oblivious to the sunset. The only sense of time I have is on right hand corner of my computer screen.
You, on the other had, have spent all day frolicking on campus, people-watching on benches, joining in impromptu Ultimate Frisbee games and opening the blinds of your dorm-room windows. You got to see the sky turn pink. You got to put your hoodie sweatshirt on as the temperature dropped slightly. You got to stretch your legs and walk to the library.
It’s 11:23 p.m on a Wednesday night. Deadline was 2 hours and 23 minutes ago. After fierce glaring and exaggerated sighs from me, their tyrannical editor-in-chief, my staff has finally left for the night. All articles are copy-edited and all pages are laid out with stolen copy-righted graphics from Google Image Search. The office, once filled with giggles and arguments and dueling Youtube videos, is now empty. Now it’s time for my job. After rechecking for incorrect page numbers and misspelled headlines, I’m supposed to send the pages to the printer over the internet as .pdf files. The files are huge; 200 MBs or GBs or XBs or whatever you call them. They’re too big for email. The software we used to send them is called “Fetch.” Its logo is a pixilated dog with a bone. I click it and rest my forehead on the keyboard. My eyebrows press on the space bar.
Right now, you’re at half-price sushi night at Otani Japanese Steakhouse, ingesting seaweed strips and sake bombs with 46 of your closest friends. You just finished watching the latest episode of “Top Chef,” and updated your Facebook status about the undeserving winner. You have a paper due tomorrow, but not until 3:30 p.m. You have plenty of time to bullshit seven pages when you get home. You plan to Sparknote the reading for your 11 a.m. lit class. You order another shot of Jagermeister.
I slowly curl my neck up and look at the back of the computer. I had clicked on Fetch 45 seconds ago, but instead of loading the program, a little rainbow wheel appears and spins in the center of the screen without care. The Mac equivalent of that pesky hourglass. Panicked, I reach for the mouse, shake and scrape the rolling ball against the desk, erratically clicking. Nothing happens.
If the pages don’t get sent, the paper doesn’t get printed. If the paper doesn’t get printed, the University loses $800 dollars. If the paper doesn’t get printed, the Bullet loses $400 in ad revenue that we have to reimburse to the businesses and vendors who bought space on the ad page. If the paper doesn’t get printed, no one on campus will be made aware that the third floor of the parking deck is now for residential students only. If the paper doesn’t get printed, no one will read that creepy sophomore’s sex column about his earwax fetish. If the paper doesn’t get printed, all my staff’s hard work is spoiled. If the paper doesn’t get printed, I am royally screwed.
The rainbow wheel spins on.
I swing my swivel chair over to another computer and check the time. 11:25 p.m. I’ve been inside this building for over 14 hours. I skipped my one class of the day to rewrite a freshman’s review of the new Flaming Lips album, where he used the word ‘troubadours’ four too many times. I got all three meals upstairs in the dining hall, and brought my plates back down to the office to continue writing and editing. I used the same plates so I wouldn’t have to wait in line again and reswipe my meal plan card. We call it the “Seaco Sneako.”
My fists are clenched in frustration. In a huff, I jab my finger on the bottom in the back of the frozen computer. The screen goes black. I press the button again and hear the comforting symphonic chord of a restarting Mac. I take a deep breath.
As the application icons slowly reappear on the screen, I scan the cluttered office surrounding me. I look up. The ceiling looks like it’s made out of cork. Late at night, when the dining hall is closed and the janitors have mopped and the dishwashers have restacked the checkered plates and opaque blue cups, the rats come out. I can’t see them, but I can hear them. They crawl in the floor boards above my head, squeaking and scampering and jiggling the ceiling. I place my palm on the part of my hair, and scoot back to one of the other computers. I exhale loudly.
The Desktop is fully loaded and I click on Fetch again. Once more, up pops the rainbow spinning wheel of death. I curse loudly and smack the side of the monitor. This actually works. The program opens and asks me which file I want to send. I click and click and start the waiting.
It’s past midnight. You and your friends are headed back to campus from the sushi bar by now, speeding down Route 3 blasting Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” for the third time in a row, windows down. You decide to make a Wa-Wa stop to stock up on Cooler Ranch Doritos and Orange Crush in preparation for the blunt you’re about to smoke out of your dorm’s bathroom window. You wink the teenaged girl cashier as she hands you back your change in nickels. She can definitely tell that your penis is above average in length.
I stare off into space for 20 minutes, and the blue progress bar on the screen is only at 30 percent. I wander over to the forgotten archive corner of the office and start thumbing through the deteriorating issues of yesterday. Going back 70 years, there are bylines with names I don’t recognize, political cartoons about a different George Bush, and letters-to-the-editor written in opposition to Mary Washington becoming a co-ed institution. The papers are stacked haphazardly on the shelves; any formal organization system has been shuffled and lost. The ‘60s are sandwiched between the ‘90s and the ‘40s. The ‘80s remain at the top. The 2000s are still wrapped in bundles on the floor. The news stories are the same no matter what the decade; faculty layoffs, sexual assaults in the dorms, and semi-prominent politicians speaking on campus. Newsprint ink smudges on my fingertips. I wipe my hands on my corduroys and thank whoever invented digital archiving.
It’s 12:37 a.m. and the file is only half loaded. I want to escape into the weekday evening so badly, but I have an itching feeling that as soon as I leave the building the computer will freeze again and the file won’t send and the paper won’t print and I will be demoted to Distribution Manager. I will not let myself leave until the big white screen informs me that the file has traveled through wires and waves and finally reached Shenandoah Printing in Edinburg, Virginia.
I sit back down in my swivel chair and look to the walls for advice from Editors Past. The words of the prophets are written on the Bullet office walls. Curling paper of varying whites and yellows form a taped mosaic of two decades of inside jokes and forgotten catchphrases. The quotes are desperate for context:
“Vagina is not a swear word.”
“Do you capitalize ‘dragon balls’ when you’re talking about the actual balls?”
“The only thing to come out of Nu Metal was school shootings.”
“Yeah… Fuck Periods.”
Buried in the cursing and double entendres, there are relevant postings too; papers with keyboard short cuts, AP style reminders and even a few journalism awards. People once cared.
I open my eyes abruptly. It’s 1:30 a.m. the file was finished loading 20 minutes ago. I click “okay” and ask no questions. A sigh of relief; the campus will be informed and enlightened tomorrow morning after all.
After hurriedly gathering my belongings, I lock the office and exit the building through the back doors. The snide breeze of the autumn evening pricks my bare arms. I forgot to bring a jacket. Campus is desolate. I cut across the lawn toward my house in the student ghetto. Orange and red leaves crunch under my loafers as I go over my to-do list before my class tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. I have to read 250 pages of Confederacy of Dunces, revise an travel writing essay and write out an annotated bibliography for a linguistics paper. It’s 1:12 a.m.
You have been asleep for 35 minutes, curled up in your ironic dinosaur onesie. Tomorrow, you will pick up a copy of the Bullet during lunch, scoff at the boring headlines and sloppy cut-outs. Without looking inside, you will crumple the paper and chuck it into the trash can in front of you, and not the recycling bin to the left of you. You will return to your conversation about strategies for playing Super Smash Brothers while stoned.
There won’t be a paper the next day, but I’ll still bring my plate down to the office to eat lunch alone.
SUSANNAH CLARK writes things that she thinks are true and then spends a lot of time worrying about whether or not other people will consider them true. She is currently pursuing her MFA from Emerson College.