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by Carolyn Daughters
Three weeks into my summer internship in the basement of the Pentagon, I still had no tasking. I spent my time reading, having run out of self-imposed busywork in the inertia-filled, windowless space I had begun to think of as the Pentadoom.
One morning, I looked up from The Name of the Rose to find Santa Claus hovering over me. He worked in an office down the hall. White-bearded, bellied, bespectacled, he tapped the book, snorted.
“You shouldn’t be reading this,” he said.
I jumped up. I’d been caught slacking on the government’s dime. Heat, sunburn red, crept forehead to chin.
“Read if you like,” he said, “but time’s precious. Why waste it on Umberto Eco?”
“John Beasley,” he said. He shook my hand, set a classified document on my desk. “Proof it,” he said.
“But I’m a poli sci major,” I said. And a business, anthropology, and French major. Which is another way of saying I hadn’t yet declared and editing wasn’t my forte.
He was already out the door. I put tentative red pen to page. It was a slow, stressful go. Several days later, I finished. The next morning, the edited doc was gone, a new doc in its stead atop my copy of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. On a sticky note: “‘Loneliness is that single star I once spotted on a dark moonless night.’—Bzly”
I completed the new proofing job, and he picked it up right as I was about to tuck into Jude the Obscure. “So Carolyn Daughters is a working-class girl aching to become a scholar?” he asked.
Spot on. For years, I had immersed myself in my studies, my goal being to read, write, test, and impress my way to an elusive educational pinnacle. “I’m going through the list,” I said. I pulled out the pages I had typed up, 500 books in total. “Next up, Sophie’s Choice, Play It as It Lays, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”
“Masochist,” he said. “How are things here in no man’s land?”
I stifled a yawn, shrugged.
He unpinned the Rostov and Bolkonsky family tree clipped to the cubicle wall, made a box for Prince Andrei. I held my breath. How had I forgotten Andrei?
“Come to my office,” he said. “There’s actual work being done.” A day earlier, I had walked in on several of his coworkers doing the Electric Slide.
He squinted, took me in. “You have a very expressive face,” he said.
“So I’ve been told,” I said.
I packed my things, decided to give the Electric Sliders a shot.
“Don’t you get bored working here?” I asked him.
“I can’t remember the last time I was bored,” he said. “I used to work on an assembly line. I wrote out Shakespearean sonnets, taped them to the wall, memorized them.”
“I’m bored all the time.”
“You’re not working hard enough.”
“‘You can always tell employees of the government by the total vacancy which occupies the space where most other people have faces.’”
I recognized the quote from A Confederacy of Dunces. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning you know but you don’t care.”
Talk about a gut punch. “I care.”
“In that case, I’ve noticed you don’t know how to use semicolons.”
“And that makes me different than 99.4 percent of the population how?”
“If that’s your ambition, you’re doing a bang-up job.”
In his office, he set the Government Printing Office Style Manual and Strunk and White on an empty desk, along with a classified doc that needed proofing. Later that week, I gave him the proofread document, several dozen extraneous semicolons edited out, a couple semicolons added for good measure.
“What’s next on the reading list?” he asked.
“’A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead,’” I said.
“Graham Greene.” He smiled, handed me a fresh sheet of paper. “We need a new command and control doc. These are your subject matter experts.” He pointed to the Electric Sliders. “The author? That’s you.” I stared at the blank page as if words might materialize there of their own volition. “Ready to look ahead?” he asked.
I didn’t need to think about it. “Yes.”
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Carolyn Daughters is a freelance writer/editor and an alumna of the Book Project. She’s currently revising her novel, set in and around the Pentagon. Check out her blog at www.CarolynDaughters.com, or email her at Carolyn@CarolynDaughters.com if you’d like to discuss the merits of Umberto Eco’s novels, the Electric Slide, or proper semicolon usage.