Our job was to drive to an airport, high school, bus garage, or other municipal facility, to find the closet or cabinet where the cans and bottles of chemicals were kept, and to read the contents of those cans and bottles, aloud, into miniature tape recorders. Within a few weeks, a pool of secretaries would transcribe the tapes onto adhesive labels, with which we would return to the facility in question, where we would locate the cans and bottles whose contents we had recorded. We would remove the adhesive labels from their paper backings and carefully stick them onto the containers: indeed, right on top of the lists of contents we had used to generate the tapes.
When we pointed out to our supervisor that, far be it from us to question the usefulness of our work, but didn’t the entire process seem to him wasteful and unnecessary, he shook his head and responded, “It’s regulations.” Our supervisor was a bearish man with a long black-and-gray beard and a great belly that advanced before him like a keg of beer he was carrying through a crowd at a party. People stepped aside for him, in spite of themselves. He was aggressive, officious, and dismissive; yet he was also sort of charming. With the exception of his young son, who worked alongside us during our labeling expeditions, we all tried unsuccessfully to curry favor with him in the mornings, when we received our assignments, and this left us all feeling ashamed and subdued on the long drive to our destination.
In any event, the regulations our supervisor referred to really did prescribe this obscure process. These regulations had been generated by our supervisor’s father, in fact, when he worked for a state government regulatory agency that oversaw workplace safety. When our supervisor’s father retired, he founded our company, which was dedicated to upholding the regulations he had created as a younger man; and now his son had shouldered the yoke of the regulations that were, apparently, his birthright.
Further complicating this arrangement was the fact that our supervisor’s son had no interest in, or respect for, regulations at all, the ones his grandfather created or any others, as far as we could tell. He showed up late to work, smoked and drank on the job, treated our professional contacts rudely, and generally made everyone’s lives more difficult. He was fond of calling all site custodians “Vic” regardless of their real names, and liked to perform what all of us had to admit, with deep misgivings, was a masterful impersonation of his father: head and shoulders thrown back, he would waddle up to building officials like a man twice his age and weight, and start barking orders about the regulations, how the regulations needed to be followed, and so please lead us to the closets and cabinets that contained the chemicals, so that we could regulate them with our regulations immediately, am I making myself clear, Vic? You could practically see the belly and beard, so strongly were their presence implied. The custodians tended to be a dispassionate bunch, and generally ignored our supervisor’s son’s antics, and before long we would find ourselves back before the rows of cans and bottles, either dictating their contents into our recorders or obscuring the list of contents with labels bearing a list of the contents.
That was in 1989. I was recently back in my home town, attending the funeral of a friend, and found myself driving past the strip mall where the workplace safety company’s headquarters had been housed. I was surprised to find the blandly familiar sign still in the window, and I stopped in to say hello to our supervisor, who I assumed must still be working there, if the company were still in business.
And indeed he was, beard and belly intact, as officious as ever, and strangely well-preserved given his obvious poor health. I spoke familiarly with him for a few minutes before he mentioned that his father had died.
I was startled by this revelation, because I thought that the old man had been dead for years—since before I worked for the company, in fact. It was then that I realized I was speaking not to my supervisor, but to his once-wayward son, who now resembled perfectly the 1989 iteration of the father, now deceased. It was, in fact, as though the son’s impersonation had extended into the realm of body morphology; the virtual belly and beard had become real, and the waddling, pushy walk had lost its comic exaggeration. It was just the way he walked now. I baited the son about changes to the laws regulating chemical use in municipal structures, hoping he would launch into his jokey routine about “the regulations,” but instead he responded in earnest, having apparently accepted the ancestral legislation without irony, and explained that the regulations still necessitated the sticking of labels. He gestured behind him, towards the pool of now-greatly-aged secretaries, with their headphones and outdated computers; a bank of laser printers spat out sheets of labels that I could see, even across the room, still bore the familiar ingredients: the petroleum distillates, the hydrocarbons, the percholoethylene and glycol ethers. Doubtless, a team of college students would soon be dispatched to affix them to bottles and cans—perhaps the new supervisor’s own disrespectful son or daughter among them.
I didn’t wait to find out. I was in town for a funeral, after all, and had to go console my dead friend’s wife, who was waiting in their home, surrounded by flowers and casseroles. But it was while I was there, gently embracing the widow, whom I had dated for some months before my friend met her, and whose comely daughter had just entered the room via the stairs, looking, in her sadness, much as my friend’s wife had when she dumped me for my friend in 1987, that I began to feel as though the sub-pocket of universe I was presently inhabiting were undergoing a terrifying recursive episode, one that, if I didn’t leave immediately, I might not escape. I began to think that everyone at my friend’s wake, everyone in my home town, might be doomed to churn for eternity in this strange causal loop, only dimly aware of our fate.
So I kissed my friend’s widow, waved gamely to her daughter, and headed for the door. But the crowd pressed closer, and pushed me back, and I was drawn deeper and deeper into the wake, and I never did make it out.