It was somewhere around the 40th headline Paul’s vision began to break from the page and he found himself staring out the window, his eyes still flickering from person to person much the same as they had been just flitting from word to word, looking for a mistake, an imperfection, an inconsistency.
He looked back at the spreadsheet and everything on it, all of the words and what numbers had been on there, too, had blended together, like a child’s attempt at watercolor painting; all splotches and lines and words that had until just a few minutes ago made some sort of cohesive, logical sense. It wasn’t the numbers doing, it was Paul’s, and he knew that, and he wondered how to stop unseeing the datasheet that way. He rubbed his eyes and looked outside again. Four woman stood on the corner. He looked back at the spreadsheet. It was worse than before. He rubbed his eyes again, took a sip of his coffee, and looked back outside. There were three women now. A group of individuals walked by the two women. One of them was wearing a hat. That hat cost $80. That man had $80 to spend on a hat. That man had a job and a lifestyle which afforded him the cost of a week’s worth of Paul’s groceries for something the man could wear on his head. Paul thought to himself: the man is wearing my groceries on his head. In a way, Paul was right. In many others, he was not. Paul chuckled to himself. Silly guy.
He looked down at the spreadsheet and the numbers and words had moved around again, they were in different places than when he had last looked. He had had episodes like this before, a few times sitting in the same spot in the cafe as he always had, but not like this, and not for this long. He looked outside again. A man walked by with a backpack on. The man’s back was arched in a display of unspoken confidence that automatically made Paul look away, back to the page, and back to the numbers which were wrong. What was happening, Paul thought to himself. Perhaps he should read a book.
His brown leather bag lay at his feet and he picked up his bag and held it in his lap between his stomach and the table and dug through it. He carried with him several books, and picked a book of quotes. That would be succinct, Paul thought, not too much strain on the ol’ brain. He licked his thumb and flipped through the pages. The book felt lighter that he remembered. Paul looked at a page. It was off, as if someone had moved something in it. He touched the page and the word “modest” fell from the it, right onto the table. It made a small sound as it hit the wood, not unlike a paperclip might.
Paul resigned himself to now knowing that a word carried about the same physical weight of a paperclip before looking around to see if anyone had noticed the sound. They were either too busy to notice or incredibly skilled at appearing that way, Paul thought, and then wondered briefly if they could see the word “modest” laying there on the table. He flicked it to the side. He touched the page again. Five, ten more words fell to the table. They sounded like ten paperclips being dropped.
Nobody seemed to notice.
Except for Paul. It was Paul’s job to fact check, to copy edit, and it was not beneficial that all of a sudden everything had fallen off of the page.
The people behind the counter, the two young women behind the counter and the surly bearded man that worked in the back room, they hadn’t noticed anything, nor would they need to, because there was nothing to see. To them, the gentleman in the brown jacket in the far left corner of this particular location of the nationwide chain of coffee shops was simply acting a little strange, which was nothing new. They were too far away to see the words, anyway. Words were small. Words were small, delicate little things, very thin, too, thought Paul, as he picked up two between his thumb and forefinger and flicked them back onto the paper. He placed one hand under the edge of the table and used his other hand to sweep the majority of the letters and numbers and punctuation back onto the page. Why did this happen. Why did this happen to him.
He wondered if it had ever happened to any of the artist he’d cared about. He imagined Mozart as a young man weeping by a piano in Vienna — at his feet, a pool of notes and clefs and whatever else music was made of, Paul didn’t know, Paul was ignorant to many things despite his thoughts otherwise. Paul tried to imagine Martin Luther King or perhaps Gandhi doing the same but couldn’t, for Paul was not very imaginative.
Why did this keep happening to him? he thought as he closed the spreadsheet and placed it into his leather attache. The bottom of his attache was covered in spilled words. Paul was embarrassed by this. He hoped nobody found out that he ruined words. He had landed his job as a copyeditor through the inherent structural nepotism that exists in the publishing world. His boss had fancied Paul to be somewhat of a son to him after the crushing disappointment of his own son. Paul had no knowledge of this. Paul was ignorant. Paul got through life the way most people get through particularly good sandwiches.
It was a mystery to Paul as to why everything fell off the page. He picked up his leather attache and without looking back he exited the coffee shop into the cold autumn air. It was a mystery, he thought.
But it wasn’t a mystery. Paul was ignorant. He’d find out soon enough, though.