The small circle, dressed in the depressed hues of a viciously-sharpened number two lead pencil, stares back at me like a dead eye.
I gave it life. The answer key took it away.
Now it is just some scavenged mathematical carcass, a decomposing civil service roadkill.
Have I been reduced to this?
I glance at my reflection in the cafeteria window and see a pencil-stabbing, middle-aged sedentary hunter chasing down waddling overbred answers that are too afraid to fly.
I am so much better than this.
I sigh and breathe in the rancid smells of lunchroom plastic, test anxiety, burning erasers, and charred gray matter.
My job of ten years now requires me to upend fractions until I empty their pockets of decimals, comprehend inane passages on the incomprehensible mating habits of the three-banded armadillo, read elaborate graphs drawn on an axis the size of an atom, and translate the conversation puffed rice would have with popcorn.
Needless to say, I have never used, wanted, nor been required to do any such rot in my life.
But I have been sitting here in this Looking Glass world for over three hours now, trying to color the wisdom of the world into circle choice A, B, C, or D.
And I am not the only nut in Wonderland.
The woman next to me sweats all over her test booklet as she concocts an equation that I think stands a good chance of confirming the Big Bang Theory.
The girl on my left keeps swearing and pulling out patches of hair as she rips holes in her answer sheet.
I push my test-taking Buddha in her direction but she only swears more vehemently, not at me per se, just at life.
I can respect that.
I fear, though, that the large overweight man across from me with the steamed eyeglasses is designing a suicide note on his booklet.
He is running out of space and there are still three more hours to go.
How has this happened to us?
I drudge back to my test booklet #P6937A and attempt to decode question fifty.
Dear God! What is the percentage of chickens that come before eggs if the breed of rooster is a Rhode Island red?
My eyes sting from eraser scat, my throat closes up from exam asthma, my head pounds from data drilling.
I cannot last for thirty more questions.
What could possibly be left?
The test has already covered all volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the last ten years of the Farmer’s Almanac, all the IRS audits done since Euclid, and the pitching stats of every Cy Young winner since 1953.
What could possibly be left?!
Then I remember: The Gettysburg Address, the secret recipe for Coca Cola, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and all the episodes of Jeopardy.
I am in some corporate hell with no hope for salvation.
I put Buddha back in my pocket and get scolded by The Monitor.
I squint my eyes at her to let her know that I fully suspect she is the very author of this marathon exam.
She folds her massive arms and slits her eyes right back at me.
I take this as silent confirmation. Ha! I knew it.
She’s one of those parochial school valedictorians whose life didn’t work out quite like she planned and this is her revenge.
I’m on to her.
My logic skills have been honed these past three hours.
My paranoia is at feverish pitch.
I stare. She stares. I blink.
She is paid $15.75 per hour while I am wasting valuable time.
The Monitor chuckles victoriously and slithers away.
I slide down defeated into my chair and bite the eraser right off of my pencil.
That’s when it happens – my denouement, my ephiphany, my Andy Warhol moment.
In my peripheral vision, I detect a glitter…of what? Of hope? Of chance? Of?
Can it possibly be?
In this upstate New York summer where every weekend has been overcast or sopping wet, there is the sun!
I shade my eyes and stare up at the solar magnificence.
Old Sol is wearing a smiley face and whispering my name.
He is so out there in his rainbow tiara festooned in Roy G Biv bling. You go , girl!
Birds appear carrying pastel silken ribbons in their beaks while chirping “Here Comes The Sun,” just like the Beatles only different.
I start to hum along but The Monitor appears.
I don’t care.
Flower heads erupt from the earth wearing shocking wigs of color.
I feel like Snow White in a room full of dwarves.
A unicorn prances by as the disco ball sun starts to spin.
Jumping up on the cafeteria table, I shout: “What is the true measure of an employee? What about creativity? Integrity? Showing up on time? Never using a sick day in ten years? Refraining from eating a colleague’s lunch in the company fridge?”
The rest of my comrade test takers break their pencils and join me up on the table.
The Civil Service exam has now morphed into something rude and unruly – akin to a bad Broadway show tune.
But hold on. No need for anxiety. This is only happening in my head. But still…it is an “aha” moment of epic proportions, my defining moment of dignity.
I pencil a square box around every remaining choice D: None of the above. For it truly is the only correct answer in life.