The Guy who Files Paperwork* by Sarah Kiker

No one noticed his absence at first. Quite honestly, there wasn’t even the vague sense of something gone missing. It was like the feeling someone gets where everything seems right in the world right before that someone realises that they’ve left their wallet on the bus that’s probably miles away by now. The whole office was in that state of peace. No one asked “Hey, where’s Jim?” and no one had to immediately pick up any slack. He wasn’t a face of the company, he wasn’t anyone’s boss, and no one could remember quite for sure what he did in the office. For a while it seemed that life would carry on unimpeded by the absence of Jim.

It was a large office, mostly consisting of one room in which desks were lined up in groups of three or four, all facing each other, except the one desk in the corner. The desk seemed as empty as it always had been. Even during his days at the company, Jim kept his desk almost clear, except he was always drinking out of a white coffee mug, which had left a residual coffee ring in the top right corner of the desk. Jim’s co-workers had no need to pass the desk in the corner, so if they happened to notice the empty desk, they would assume that whoever sat there was sick or out to lunch. The desk was the only one of its kind, as it was the only remaining desk from before the office was remodeled. All of the other employees had newer, nicer desk. Jim’s desk was a hard, cold metal and the color of it balanced sickly between yellow and brown. Scattered randomly throughout its three draws were bits of odd paper, some receipts, some straw wrappers, some remains of envelopes. The chair accompanying the desk was one of those blue plastic chairs that are found at church potlucks and high schools. Its legs were uneven and it see-sawed back and forth every time the person seated in it shifted their weight. The fluorescent light above Jim’s desk remained off on good days and flickered on bad ones. Maintenance had ignored the numerous request forms to fix the light because they couldn’t think of anyone named Jim and they assumed it was a prank.

The first thing that was notably missing was the smell of doughnuts on Monday morning. Jim had started Doughnut Monday on June 21st, 2014, almost five months ago, after he was granted a budget to do so. Every Monday morning the doughnut shop next to the office prepared 10 boxes of doughnuts, which Jim left early to go pick up. When Jim didn’t arrive Monday morning, the owner of the doughnut shop called Jim to check up, and when the owner found out Jim had left his job, the owner gave him a free box of doughnuts as a going away present.

Jim’s boss eagerly awaited the arrival of the doughnuts on Monday morning, but they never came. His disappointment was intense if not crippling, and he complained of a headache for the rest of the day. As the other employees arrived, they were greeted by the regular, dry air smell of a non-doughnut morning. They were all a bit unsettled, and a few people left early that day.

Jim’s boss began to notice that a stack of unfinished paperwork was pilling up on a desk in the corner. The desk seemed so old and out of place. He asked around, and everyone told him that the desk was where they always put the paperwork. Whoever it was that filed that stuff would take care of it. What was his name again?

“What else is he supposed to be doing? What was his exact job?”  Jim’s boss asked the secretary.

“I don’t know; they just tell us to give him our completed paperwork and he files it away.”

Jim’s boss spent 3 days questioning his workers about the man who filed the paperwork. The mail guy couldn’t recall ever delivering mail to the desk in the corner. The woman in charge of his checks was pretty sure he had brown hair. The guy closest to Jim’s desk thought he was an intern because he looked young, but no one knew his name. The paperwork guy, they called him. Just the paperwork guy.

For a while, Jim’s boss let the paperwork go unfiled, assuming Jim was on vacation. People kept asking him where things were and he would tell them to go to the desk in the corner to look; the stack got larger and larger, nearly burying the desk underneath it. The top of the desk used to reflect the flickering fluorescent light above, making anyone who stood next to it for long nauseated. The paper seemed to absorb the light, as it started to almost cover the light completely, and the only sign that the light was flickering at all was the faint clicking sound it made as it turned on and off. Employees didn’t mind covering the flickering light, but they stopped being able to find their missing paperwork. Stacks started piling up on the floor, covering the ugly exterior of the lonely desk. Occasionally the air conditioning would blow a page or two away from the stacks and further out into the gray and yellow patterned carpet, further spreading out the paperwork. Jim’s boss tried to find contact information for the guy who filed the paper work, but digging to uncover the desk proved useless. Jim had left nothing behind.

Jim’s boss’s boss came on 14th November 2014 to check up on things, as he normally does on this date.

“What’s all this paperwork doing here? What is this? This is last month’s statement. Why isn’t this filed away?”

“The guy who’s filed it isn’t coming in.”

“He didn’t quit? He just stopped showing up? Haven’t you tried calling him?”

“Well, honestly, I can’t remember who it was. No one remembers.”

“That’s ridiculous. Get someone to file this paperwork.”

Everyone else was too busy, so Jim’s boss had to file the paperwork. On his first day filling, he noticed that the fluorescent light above the desk was flickering. He phoned in to maintenance and they sent someone up within the hour.

At this point, the paperwork was a small mountain. Jim’s boss was suddenly caught in a mess with no quick way to clean it up. He took off his shoes, loosened his tie and started sorting the paperwork into piles: receipts over here, HR forms over there, complaints on the chairs, new clients on top of the chair, payroll by the door, filled orders in the top drawer, and unfilled orders in the bottom drawer. Sometimes it was a bit complicated, because if this receipt from 6th November was the copy of a receipt from taking a new client out to lunch, did it go in receipts or new clients? Or, if this HR form is a complaint about HR, did it go over here or over there? This payroll sheet is from last year, why is it on this desk? What is this? Is this important? No, it’s just a piece of scratch paper with numbers on it. This is a complaint about the boss; Jim’s boss kept those stacked inside the trash can.

It took him all day. None of his other work got done and when he had put a big enough dent into the paperwork, he started carrying stack after stack to the file room. He started with the receipts and organised them by alphabetical order. After finishing that, he opened the drawer of the receipt filing cabinet and realised they were sorted by date.

“How could paperwork be this complicated?” Jim’s boss wondered out loud. He left the receipts on the ground in front of the filing cabinets and went back to his office. Maybe he hadn’t been looking hard enough for the guy who was supposed to file the paperwork. If only he could figure out his name. Jim’s boss looked through a list of all the employees in the office, but didn’t recognise half of the names on the list and there was no one with a position that sounded even remotely like their only job was to file paperwork.

The paperwork kept building up and the boss could never get a handle on it. He slacked off on his other duties; he couldn’t keep up with his own work because he was spending most of his time keeping up with the paperwork. There were incomplete stacks piled on the desk, but no one could tell which was which. Jim’s boss held a meeting where he handed out diagrams of his organisation plan, so maybe people could organise as they went, but they always put the receipts with the complaints, or the HR forms with the new clients, and it took Jim’s boss even longer. He would organise, reorganise, realise he did it wrong and start over. Eventually, his other work caught up with him; he lost a client, lost the company a lot of money, and lost his job.

Jim’s boss packed up his office, but also unpacked the paperwork. He went to the desk in the corner, which was still covered in paperwork, and scattered as much of it around as he could before security escorted him out. The only place there wasn’t paperwork was on the top of Jim’s old desk. The desk started reflecting the light again, except now the light was constant. People couldn’t believe how much brighter it was in the office.

Jim’s boss’s replacement was a young and enthusiastic woman who just quit her job at another company because it wasn’t “challenging her.”  The paperwork, which at this point was scattered around the whole office, was a surprise to the replacement. Her interview had been held in a different location, and as she stepped into the office on the first day, she almost slipped on an unfilled order for more pens. She noticed how Jim’s coworkers stepped over and refused to touch any of the papers, as if they were contaminated by a deadly disease. Jim’s boss’ replacement’s first order of business was to hold a meeting where she asked for volunteers to help clean up the paperwork, but no one volunteered. She offered to buy lunch, she offered overtime for it, she offered a permanent raise, but no one would do it.

The paperwork grew and the replacement held interviews for an organisation assistant and looked for someone who was “enthusiastic and eager to help provide a better office environment” and she was “willing to pay overtime”. All of the interviews went bad, because no one was willing to take the job once they set foot in the office.

The replacement noticed that the bulk of the paperwork was piled around what seemed like a desk from the 80’s. She asked a few people who was supposed to be sitting there and most everyone just laughed and ignored the question. The secretary told her that, if she could answer that question, all their problems would be solved. The replacement wondered if there was a single sane person left in this office.

Jim’s coworkers started getting disgruntled. On 2nd December 2015, 10 requests for a transfer to a different location came in and they were all declined. The high number of transfer requests alerted Jim’s boss’s replacement’s boss to come in and check on things. He demanded that something be done about the paperwork, which covered almost the entire office floor, and was now impossible not to step on. He threatened the replacement with her job.

The replacement tried hiring a cleaning service to come in and clean everything.

“I just need you to put it all away into the files” she begged the company over the phone.

“Ma’am, we don’t really do that.”

“I know, but no one will do it and it has to be done. It’s getting a little ridiculous”

“How much is there?”

“A lot, two or three inches deep.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s two or three inches deep and covering the entire floor of the office”

“Are you joking?”

“No, but I’ll pay double your hourly rate” The cleaning service hung up on her.

All work at the office came to halt, suffocated by the piles of paperwork. No one could get anything done any more. Some people quit, others simply stopped coming, and the rest played card games in the break room for most of the day. Clients started leaving, one right after the other. Some of them came to the company to demand answers, then immediately dropped the company as soon as they saw the mess.

They began to build trails through the paperwork. At first it was just a few sheets of paper thinner than everywhere else, but people kept adding to the stacks and they reached new heights. On 3rd January 2016, the replacement knocked over one of the stacks of paper with her knee. ­­­The trails were about two feet wide and wound all over the office. For a while, people would get lost trying to get somewhere. If the break room is north, does the path going west or east get me to it? After the one guy from accounting tripped and sprained his ankle while climbing over one of the stacks, no one tried that again. They all stuck to the paths. Eventually, someone posted a map of all the trails on the front door.

On 16th June 2016 in the middle of the night, a damaged power cord sparked and the fire spread quickly, jumping from paper to paper until the whole office was in flames. The fire was put out, but the office was in ashes. The only thing that survived was the old metal desk in the corner. It was covered in the ashes of the paperwork that once weighed it down, but the desk was shockingly intact. That branch of the company was shut down permanently. On 22nd May 2017, after a year of struggling to deal with the loss, the company as a whole went bankrupt and closed its doors.

Jim had left the company because he hated his dull job, where he mostly filed paperwork. He hated that no one seemed to care who he was, so he left in complete silence, hoping to cause a headache for the company. In December 2014, after Jim left his job, the company’s accountant called and left a message to ask why Mr. Jim Sterling hadn’t deposited his last check and whether he still wanted to come pick it up. Jim never called them back.

Jim had spent a few months looking for a new job. He struggled with money for a while and had to move in with his parents again, but anything was better than filing paperwork. He eventually found a job at another company where he started as a salesman and worked his way up the ladder. On 18th October 2017, he became the boss at his new job.

Jim was in the habit of coming in early to work and reading the newspaper everyday while drinking coffee at his desk. One day, on the front page, he saw the picture of his old office burned down and an article about the odd mishap with paperwork. No one in the article said much; the company refused to comment on the now unemployed worker’s statements that there had been an unreasonable amount of paperwork lying around. The company struggled to breathe from the smoke of what the newspaper called “The Paper Jam.”

Jim read the article several times, just to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. It was a tragedy; so many people had lost their jobs, but in light of the fact that no one was hurt, Jim started giggling and couldn’t stop himself for several minutes.

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