The station was a squat peninsula in a vast sea of corn on the south side of the highway. The tall, green, thick stalks blocked any breeze that might have been able to stir. Russ was bent over, trying to carefully meter out exactly five dollars’ worth of fuel, “click, whoosh, click, whoosh” but he still gazed across the highway where hay fields stretched to the horizon.
—-Bill Chance, Whump Whump Whump
I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.
I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.
Here’s another one for today (#20). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.
Thanks for reading.
Whump Whump Whump
It was hot, even for July in the plains, and Russ Hathoway felt like he took a physical blow every time he left or entered the little cinder block building to tend to the pumps. It was as much of a shock to enter the cold of the inside, with the humming window units spaced around the back wall, as it was to battle with the searing sun. He was pumping gas all summer to make enough money to pay for his tuition. He was working toward a math degree at the state university. He didn’t know how he would ever make it – not only money-wise, but the other kids, mostly from countries he had never heard of, were so, so much smarter than he was.
And now he was stuck working at this gas station in the middle of nowhere. The customers liked him though, and the owner noticed the place made more money when Russ was manning the pumps. So the owner and his whole family piled in the station wagon and took off for the whole month, leaving the place for Russ alone. That was fine, more hours, more money. And in the slow times Russ could pull his textbook out and jot calculations on the chalkboard behind the counter – get a head start on the fall semester. In that summer of ’77 gas had jumped to sixty-two and nine/tenths cents per gallon and the customers always complained about it – like Russ had any influence on oil prices.
The station was a squat peninsula in a vast sea of corn on the south side of the highway. The tall, green, thick stalks blocked any breeze that might have been able to stir. Russ was bent over, trying to carefully meter out exactly five dollars’ worth of fuel, “click, whoosh, click, whoosh” but he still gazed across the highway where hay fields stretched to the horizon. Today a “Green Monster” – a giant spindly machine armed with a crew of young men Russ’ age moved around the field scooping up rectangular bales with a probing conveyor belt until the crew grabbed and stacked the compressed fodder into a growing cube – like giant green fuzzy sugar cubes.
He knew some of the boys working on the Monster – they were bronzed and shirtless, which looked pretty fun to Russ, struggling in his oil-stained uniform and Standard Oil cap. His distraction caused him to give one click to many and the total jumped to $5.10.
“Shit,” Russ muttered. He didn’t mind giving the customer and extra dime of fuel, but he knew the station owner carefully checked the amounts stored inside the pumps against what the cash register said he sold and if there was a significant difference, he would chew Russ out and dock his salary.
One morning, business was slow – almost no cars disturbed the heat wave ripples rising from the asphalt highway. Russ was sitting on the little plastic chair with his textbook spread open. He would scratch his head, scribble in a spiral notebook, or squiggle on the chalkboard. To his left was the giant cash register with its brass keys, deep polished wood, and stark cash signs sticking up above. He remembered how difficult the register was to operate when he first started, pushing the keys and pulling the heavy lever to register the sale and open the cash box.
Now he could work the thing without even looking at it. He enjoyed the rhythm, effort, and most of all, the sound of the mechanism as it did its work. He would make up little poems to go along with the cadence of the operation, “Thank You HapPy People,” he would mutter to himself.
To his right was the calculator. It was used to add up charges and discounts to the gas station’s commercial accounts – diesel semis or fleets of delivery trucks. The owner had worked out special rates and prices with these companies and the calculator was needed to figure out the charges. The owner and his kids struggled with this, but for Russ it was second nature.
This big box of numbers fascinated him. It was an Olivetti Divisumma 24, made in Italy with exquisite craftsmanship. Every two months a technician stopped by and removed the case, exposing an impossibly complex three dimensional jungle of wheels, gears, and levers. He would adjust and lubricate the delicate mechanism while Russ stared over his shoulder.
Russ had a strong innate curiosity and he couldn’t help but try to figure out how it worked. It had an electric motor inside that set all the gears turning, but all the logic, all the intelligence of the thing was mechanical – set inside that metal brain of tiny interlocking parts.
It would add by moving gears and printing out the result on a little strip of paper (the technician always replaced the ribbon). Multiplication was simply addition done over and over. Russ would multiply two numbers and listen to the repeated whump whump whump of the mechanism as it moved around, adding over and over again. Subtraction, again, was simple. It was only addition in reverse.
What Russ found really fascinating was that the machine could divide. It took him a while to figure that one out. It divided by adding. The smaller number, the divisor, would simply be added up over and over until it was just less than the dividend, the large number. The calculator would then print this whole number out, along with a remainder.
Russ couldn’t help but try this out. He was amazed by this simple bit of arithmetic. He would try it with evenly divided numbers and then with operations that left a remainder. He guessed this crude arithmetic was fine for financial calculations – “how many gallons can someone buy?”, for example, and “how much change was left?”.
That morning, though, a question occurred to him. What would happen if he entered a formula where the machine had to divide by zero? It would try and add that zero over and over again, but it would never increase. Russ shook his head and casually reached over, entering 7 divided by zero, and pushed the equal sign.
“Whump, Whump, Whump, Whump,” the machine started in. That made sense, it was trying to add that zero up. An hour later, though, it was still going “Whump, Whump, Whump,” and Russ was starting to get worried. He pulled on all the levers and pushed all the buttons but nothing changed. “Whump, Whump, Whump.”
After staring at it and thinking a bit, Russ unplugged the machine. The noise stopped. Relieved, he plugged it back in, but it started in, “Whump, Whump, Whump.” Russ let it run all day.
“Oh, Shit! man, I’m in big trouble now,” Russ said out loud.
The old man told him that it cost seven hundred and fifty dollars. And now he had broken it. The owner will be docking Russ’ pay ‘til the cows come home.
Seven hundred fifty. At three bucks and hour, less taxes…. That was almost two semesters of tuition.
“Whump, Whump, Whump.”
It would be two weeks before the owner came back. Russ left a notebook by the machine and did all the calculations by hand, but that would only get him by until the owner saw what he had done. All day the sound haunted him. Sometimes he would unplug it for relief from the noise, but he always let it run all night.
He would come in the morning to open up, hoping it had stopped in the night, but was always greeted by that infernal sound.
“Whump, Whump, Whump,” the calculator droned on in the background.
Days moved into weeks and Russ began to worry more and more. He had no idea what he would do when the owner returned.
He thought of lying to the owner, saying it, “Just started up by itself.” That didn’t sound like it would work.
Then, miracles of miracles. Two days before the owner’s return, Russ was sitting there listening to the sound. He was used to it, it was the background to his day. He was even used to the anxiety that it produced. That worry too had faded into the background, even though it was always there. Russ knew he would have to live with that too, which was worse.
Suddenly, a second of silence. That silence, the lack of “Whump, Whump, Whump,” was the loudest thing Russ had ever heard. It was followed by a strident clattering as the machine began to print out on its paper tape.
Russ stared as it printed. Line after line of numbers. They looked random, but there it was, a long number that stretched almost to ninety digits. Finally, it stopped and the machine sat there silent and still, waiting for its next task.
Russ pulled out the tape and looked at it. Thinking, he figured the gears must have slipped a little bit with each Whump – and finally, after weeks, they slipped enough to add up to seven.
To this day, forty-four years later, on the wall of his office in the bowels of the University Mathematics Department, next to his PhD diploma, hangs an oddly shaped frame containing a long strip of aged yellowing paper. On that paper is a single, long number.
When asked, Professor Hathoway, Chairman of the math department, likes to answer with a wry smile, “That number is the answer to seven divided by zero.”