On my way home last week I saw a pink plastic-coated paperclip I was sure must be mine. That’s silly really. I don’t own all the pink plastic-coated paperclips in the world, and my path is busy with other travelers, some of whom must also need to gather sheaves of paper.
But maybe that’s the way we all are, interpreting everything as particular to ourselves.
I fished the paperclip from a crack between slabs of concrete and slipped it into my pocket. At home, I dropped it into a pile in one of our drawers, sure it had swum back into its womb and must be happy… as happy as paperclips get.
One of my idle fantasies is blinking and then spying the world crowded with my former selves occupying every space they have ever been. The lines of me would string all over my block and then stretch out toward parts unknown, places I couldn’t see from where I stood. La Marque, Texas would be crowded with me on bicycles, and I’d suddenly appear all over school campuses, in strange and secret places.
I imagine the rest of the population would be shocked. “Who is this guy,” they’d say, and “How am I supposed to get into the gym when he has choked the entrance?”
Working in a movie theatre in college, I used to take one dollar bills out of the till between show times and write installments of a mad saga in the margins around their edges. Chapter 368 picked up just where 367 ended, and strangers were always busy at something important only to them and their author. Once I asked a tour guide at the mint in DC what might have happened to my story, how far it might travel. He told me that, unless some bank clerk took an interest, my chapters probably left circulation right away. Up to then, I still hoped one might fly back to me like a parakeet I lost as a child.
As a teacher, I’ve heard people quote Henry Adams over and over. “A teacher affects eternity,” Adams said, “he can never tell where his influence stops.” Yes, but he can’t always tell where his influence starts either or if it starts at all. It’s possible that, every day, some former student of mine—I estimate there are around 1500 of them—gives some thought to good old Mr. Marshall, but perhaps they’re too busy wondering if anyone is giving some thought to them. Maybe they’re thinking of paperclips.
Wouldn’t everyone like to matter, to make some indelible mark on something somewhere? All those marks though, don’t they cover each other up? Wouldn’t every surface look like a Jackson Pollack? But then, even Jackson Pollack isn’t so prominent—many of my students have no idea who he is.
I meant to make a special case of my pink paperclip. It was grittier than the others in the pile, and I had it marked for some higher purpose. I retrieved it from the paperclip hoi polloi in the drawer and carried it to school. When I reached into my pocket, however, it wasn’t there, even when I turned the pocket inside out. Nor was it on my path to or from school.
Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to single it out. What if everything means to be lost?