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[ The All-Nighter (fiction) ]

I once considered making art from printer jams. I liked the scrunchy concertina folds; crashing lines of text, garbled like an alien transmission; the way the ink could smear right down the paper as you hauled it out, some hapless word stretched into a long, long scream. But that was back when I was doing my thing, living in the moment, before I started at Bill’s copy shop. Nowadays, I just hate jams, like I hate the printer-copier, and the people who come to print and copy, and Bill, and working nights when I ought to be making art. One day I’ll be out of this and on to good things. Until then, tonight is going to be a bad one. It’s only early evening, but already I can hear the gaps between the seconds ticking, and in those gaps I feel the seconds of my life dripping away onto the floor of Bill’s back room, by the printer-copier. They’d be tiny things, my seconds, specks among the wisps and shreds of paper torn from the damn jams: tiny, but they’d add up. I knew it would be a worse night than usual when the printer stuck on Mr. VeggieTable. Even at the best of times I loathed Mr. VeggieTable — that badly-drawn homunculus, carrots for legs, red pepper chest and a head of broccoli — and knew I would detest his legumes if I could afford them. Still, I had to clear the jam. The printer’s housing clicked as I opened it. More seconds fell to the floor. I pulled on the stuck paper, and it seemed to shift. I pulled, and pulled more. The clock ticked. Apart from that the night was silent, and the yellow lights were strong, and it was just me and the printer. Usually, you reach a moment when the paper gives up fighting, when you know you’ve won. But tonight it was stubborn. I pulled, and felt a quarter-inch move, and then another, but I must have been optimistic, because when I looked closer the strip of white paper was only just visible this side of the plastic maw. I strained at it, wiggled the paper and strained, and again I thought I felt it give, but nothing had emerged. I cursed the printer, and Mr. VeggieTable, and Bill; it felt like I had been pulling for hours as the lights blazed and the clock ticked. The door to the main shop edged open. It was another regular customer, the lady from Bar Barbara Ann. (These stupid business names only made me hate our clients even more; why should I have to work for them when I could be pursuing art?) Still, I went to the counter. “I need two thousand copies,” she said, passing over a red USB stick and an A4 proof. I took them, glanced at the heading on the paper — Rockin’ and a-Rollin’ Night — and was about to call up her account on my screen when she spoke again. “I need two thousand copies,” she said, passing over a red USB stick and an A4 proof. I took it, glanced at the heading and was about to call up her account when she spoke again. “I need two thousand copies,” she said, passing over a red USB stick and an A4 proof. The clock ticked and the shop was bright. “I need two thou…” — and I was thinking I should call up her account on the system, feeling my fingers on the keyboard, where they had always been and never been, and the shop was hazy, and the clock seemed very loud – – and I wrenched myself out of the moment. “Stop it!” I shouted, and I dropped the USB stick and the proof, and made for the back room, though each step seemed leaden; and when I got there I cowered on the floor by the printer-copier, and didn’t move until I heard the door sigh. I hoped she had left. I had to pull myself together. The clock ticked. Milliseconds of me trickled to the floor. I tried to focus on something physical, something real. I tried to concentrate on pulling out the paper. This time when I tugged I could feel that it came and came and came, feet and feet of it, and I should have been wreathed in spoiled printouts; yet when I looked, no more had been freed than before. Focus wasn’t working. I needed to get out, away from the light and the ticking, but it was a while before I dared to look through to the store. Barbara Ann, if that was her name, had gone. There was a red USB stick and a white sheet of A4 on the floor. Beyond the window, on the dark street, I could see rain falling, different drops striking the glass each instant, people walking, bags, cars, children, a dog, a bus, propelling themselves through the world, scurrying through the hours. I wanted to go to that door, join that crowd moving through normal seconds. I wanted to be with them now, more than I wanted my life to be different; it was a sweeter goal than any prize. I gazed at the window, and tried to stand. It seemed that I rose on my legs for a very long time, but afterwards I was crouching all the same, and here I am still. Under the lights so bright that night might as well be day, I pull on the stuck paper, and time passes listlessly, perhaps. Outside, change swims by. There’s a voice: “I need two thousand copies.” I pull on the stuck paper, and wait for the clock to tick. I can’t hear it, but I wonder if you could hear one long tick if it never ceased, and I picture myself as a tiny figure, a Mr. VeggieTable entombed in a tick of the clock that falls forever and forever toward Bill’s floor. “I need two thousand copies,” a lady says. The paper budges from its jam, but doesn’t. It’s going to be a long night.