Someone I have worked with my whole lengthy career here has just retired after 37 years. And the book I keep thinking of in relation to this is The Long Walk by Stephen King. If you have read this book you are maybe thinking this is a pretty macabre book to think of in this situation. If you haven't read The Long Walk I will tell you now all about this book so that perhaps you, too, can think me macabre.
The Long Walk takes place in a vaguely defined dystopian American future (aren't they all?). Every year in this world there is a big national endurance contest/event in which a large group of teen/young adult boys (300 or so?), all of them volunteering, vie to be the single victor who wins wealth and fame. The rules are simple but comprehensive (and I think beautifully conceived and laid out by Stephen King). You walk. There are no breaks, no excuses, you just walk. A minimum speed is enforced. Eating and drinking are done on the fly. I forget exactly how bathroom breaks work out (also on the fly?), but basically, if you lag or stop long enough you get flagged. If you get flagged 3 times within a short enough time frame you are on the spot, summarily, executed, shot in the head actually. Last person walking wins.
Do you begin to see why this is macabre? I am the main character in the story. Clerking for decades is the long walk. Shelving, checking in, registering cards, ordering supplies, helping people, coming in day after day, I am walking, the long walk. Other co-workers are out on this endless walk with me. They are always there, separate but on the same walk. Sometimes I walk with them awhile, sharing life stories, dreams, irritations, small talk, sometimes they drift off ahead or behind awhile, but always I'm aware of them. In some sense, horrible or not, we are always together. And when one of these co-workers moves on, liked or disliked, essential to the happiness of my work life or a constant irritation to me (or, more usually, somewhere in-between), when they quit, when they find some other job, when they move or when they retire, it's just exactly like they've stopped walking, like their blisters started bleeding and became too painful, or they were suffering horrible cramps, or even like it all got to them and they just didn't care anymore and so they sat down in the middle of the road, got flagged 3 times, and then got shot in the head. Over.
And I just keep walking. And they're not there anymore.
That is a seriously dark vision. This reality of my job is not actually, normally that dark. And these disappearing co-workers of mine are not generally dying. Often they're moving on to at least somewhat happier, better situations, occasionally not, but it is very rarely something tragic that is driving and defining their end here. Often, I suppose, they're off on some other long walk, just one that's not my own. And if they visit, come back, say hi, I am delighted to see them. But it's never the same. They don't work here and so they're on free time. They're like bystanders in the long walk, watching the event but uninvested. They may remember what it was like, but things change constantly and all this stuff, tiny social things, work rule change minutiae, only has weight when you're right there. Walking the long walk. They can go catch a movie or go home or plop in a chair and read. I can't. And all these other clerks here are walking too, until they stop, like the visitor did. And the corpse of their clerking is dragged away. But that corpse is already behind me, because I keep walking.
"It was so nice to see you. Come by again." I say if I like them, but that's all the time I have now. I have to get to the front desk, or go shelve these books, or get that phone. I have to keep walking. I have to keep walking and walking and walking.