Every day was like an overcast day in November in the Medical Records Department of Hennepin County Medical Center. It was in the basement, windowless, illuminated by the shimmering chill of fluorescent lights. Motorized shelves rotated, humming joylessly, the clerks operating them hidden in the shadows of cubicles. Charts were stacked on tables ready to be filed, and piles of documents, daunting snow drifts of paper, were waiting to be properly arranged and then filed in the appropriate chart in the appropriate order. The only place one could smoke was a closet of a room down a dark hallway that had a crudely rendered skull and crossbones taped to one wall indicating it was the smoking lounge.
But one day, there on a table among the files, sat a globe no larger than a basketball. It was the kind I remember from grade school—its surface gleaming, candy-colored countries interrupting the pale blue oceans, radiant in our drab office. At some point during the day, all of us in Medical Records looked at it, spinning it around, dreaming of travel or locating the homes of our ancestors in Eastern or Northern Europe, in Africa. As I examined South America, discovering names of countries I’d never heard of before, Oliver, a fellow clerk who’d been standing behind me, said, “That’s the way the earth looks on the inside, right?”
“It’s pulled inside out, with all the stuff on the inside of the earth put on the outside so we can see it.”
“Wait a minute. Do you mean that you think we live inside the earth?”
“Oh, come on! That’s absurd!”
“If we lived on the outside, how come we don’t fall off?”
“Have you ever heard of something called ‘gravity’?”
“Well, it’s what they taught me in school.”
“What the hell school did you go to? If we live inside the earth, how could we see the stars at night?”
“They’re lights from cities on the other side of the world.”
“What are the sun and the moon, then?”
Flushed face blank, Oliver insisted in a huff that it was what he had been taught in school and hurried away from more questions, back to the 10 ¾” of documents that needed to be sorted in numerical order.
But how, I wondered, could he do that? How did he know what order the numbers should be arranged? How did I, for that matter? How did I know that the hospital was probably not going to collapse in the next minute, crushing everyone in the basement? How did I know how to get home after my shift? How did I know that the bus driver knew how to drive the bus and that the other commuters on the road understood traffic laws, at least roughly in the same way, so that we could get out of the city in a safe and orderly fashion? How did I know that everyone agreed what “red” was, even if it didn’t look the same to everyone? How, when I returned to my apartment, would I know how to cook my food and, later that night, when laughing with friends at the bar, how would I know that we wouldn’t be speaking at even more acute cross-purposes than intoxication had already produced? Stepping out of the the bar afterward, cigarette smoke clinging to my clothes, awash in the orange glare of the new streetlights, I looked up at the night sky, slightly woozy. It’s so crazy. If we’re inside the earth, where are the clouds?