Short Story Of the Day – Punch Card by Bill Chance

“It’s been a prevalent notion. Fallen sparks. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home — only the millions of last moments . . . nothing more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments.”
― Thomas Pynchon,
Gravity’s Rainbow

Galatyn Station, DART, Richardson Texas


 

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 (#69) More than two thirds there! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


I try and keep most of what I write here to around a thousand words. This one is about three times as long – sorry, I know time is short, but I really didn’t feel up to cutting it down too much.

I had a little trouble with technology. This is from an outline I wrote several years ago – when Angry Birds was a thing. Now, it’s already too late.


Punch Card

“Grampa Ron! Grampa Ron! Lookit what I got for my birthday!”

Sammy Meeks shouted as he tore through down the hall and into his beloved grandfather’s study, waving a new digital tablet.

“Well well, let’s take a look at that,” Ron said as he adjusted the glasses on his head. Sammy turned the tablet so his grandfather could see the screen and with a flick of the finger set a flock of birds flying into a stone castle occupied by evil pigs.

“Angry Birds, Grampa, Angry Birds!”

“Well whataya know. What will they come up with next?”

“I’m sixteen today and this is my present.”

“You know, Sammy, when I was sixteen they didn’t have things like that.”

“I know Grampa Ron, even I remember when they didn’t have these. You must have used a laptop.”

“No, Sammy, we didn’t have laptops. I had never even seen a computer until I was in college, and they didn’t look like they do now.”

“What did they look like, Grampa?”

“Well, believe it or not, the first computer I used filled up half of one floor of a whole office building.”

“It must have been powerful.”

“Nope, I’ll bet that little tablet is ten times more powerful that this thing was. It wasn’t as powerful as my phone.”

“Half as big as a building? How did you use it.”

“Oh, Sammy, now that’s a story. Got a minute?”

“Sure Grampa, always for you.”

“It didn’t have a keyboard or a screen. It printed out reports… that’s all it did. And to put stuff in, you used these.”

Ron pointed to a frame, mounted on his wall. Sammy walked over to look at it. Mounted, matted, and professionally framed, was a rectangular piece of beige card, with one corner cut off. It had a series of square holes cut into it and a dot-matrix sentence printed across the top. Sammy moved closer, and squinted a bit, so he could read the legend.

I know, but I can see you. I think you’re cute – Christine,” Sammy read. “Grandpa Ron, What does that mean?”

“Well, Sammy, like I said, that’s a long story. It’s the story of how I met your Grandmother. Do you have a while?”

“I got all day, Grampa.”

So Grampa Ron Meeks settled down in his desk chair, half-closed his eyes, and started to tell the story.


I hated the punch card machine more than anything I had ever hated before. I was a junior, majoring in comparative literature and since I wasn’t in the computer science department I could only use the computer lab after ten in the evening. The giant computer itself took up half of the bottom floor of the building – but nobody went there. The other half was filled with a filthy snack bar, lined with rusty automats that spat out moldy candy bars and bags of stale off-brand potato chips – and a series of dingy rooms filled with hundreds of punch card machines.

I had taken an elective class in Fortran programming because I thought that computers were the future and I was worried about paying rent after graduation. Writing the assigned programs was easy – find the sides and angles of a right triangle, the day of a date, or draw a series of boxes. I could write the code, but I couldn’t punch the cards.

My homework problems had to be punched onto cards. I had to buy a case of the damn things at the beginning of the semester. I couldn’t imagine using all those cards. I didn’t know. Three months later, I had to buy another half-box from some kid in my dorm.

This was worse than a typewriter. You would load a stack of cards into the machine and then it would warm up and start to hum. The heat would rise and the ozone would burn your nose. The keys were big and yellow and had to be shoved hard before the machine would roar and then… “Blam!” it would whack a little tiny rectangle out of the card. A paper flake would fly through the air to join the thick layer of cardstock confetti coating the floor and a corresponding hole would appear in the card itself.

With the punch card machine a mistake was a disaster. Sure, the code printed out along the top of the card but they never put new ribbons in the machines and it was always too faint for me to read. When I had my stack of cards all finished I’d take them into the computer room, wrap them with a rubber band, and shove them through this little wooden door in the wall where they would fall down a chute.

Then it was time to wait. Wait for hours. I’d spend all night there, waiting for my program to run. Then, my output would drop down another, bigger, chute into a pile. Every time an output would drop, all the kids waiting would run to see if it was theirs. It was horrible.

You see, if your program ran correctly you’d get a few sheets of paper with the code and the answer printed on it but I never did, at least not the first three or four times. I’d find my cards still rubberbanded together and clipped to a huge stack of pinfeed folded green and white striped paper. On the top would be a handwritten note that would say something like, “Core Dump, you loser!”

Whenever you made a mistake, even a tiny one, the core would dump and the computer would print out hundreds of pages of gibberish. You were supposed to carefully peruse the printouts and find your error in there somewhere but nobody had time for that. You’d throw the printout in this huge wooden bin, scratch your head, and start looking for your mistake. I have no idea why they wasted all that paper.

Sometimes it would be a mistake in my work, but usually it was a typo in my card punching. The little holes corresponded to letters, numbers, or symbols and I punched out a card with everything on it, in order, and I would slide the thing slowly over every card I had punched to find the mistake.

It was horrible. I would be so tired, my eyes swimming, sitting at that huge punch machine, trying to type. Even when I made it through a card, I’d be terrified I had made an unknown error and would generate another core dump. It was killing me… but I had nowhere else to go.

Our instructor was always harping on us to put in comment cards. These were punch cards marked in a certain way so that they didn’t make the computer do anything, but simply left comments. You were supposed to leave comments about what your code was supposed to be doing or what your variable represented or why you decided to do something the way you did. It was a pain in the ass and I never did it until the teacher started marking my grade down because I had insufficient comments in my code.

So I started putting the comments in, though I never commented on the code. I figured he didn’t really look through everybody’s work for these things and only took the computer’s count of how many comments were in here. Sometimes I’d just gripe… like, “Fortran really sucks,” or “This is too hard,” or “It’s way too late at night to be doing this.

This got to be pretty boring pretty fast so I switched to some of my favorite Shakespeare Quotes, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” or “There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting,” or “I am not bound to please thee with my answer.” I might make some mistakes punching the comments… but who cared? They would still go through as comments and you could still read them.

I remember the day when I picked up my output and, sure enough, there was the big thick stack of folded paper, another core dump, but instead of a handwritten note, there was a punched card on top of my stack. It was different in that it had been done on a machine that had a fresh ribbon in it and across the top, in crisp, clear, printing, it said, “Funny Comments Ronald. You’re getting close. Ck crd 7 error in do loop – Christine.

And sure enough, in my seventh card I had hit a capital letter “Z” instead of a number “2.” I never would have seen that.

So I redoubled my efforts at witty, humorous, and obscure quotations for my comment cards. I was reading this huge crazy new book called Gravity’s Rainbow and one day I quoted from it. Stuff like, “You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.” or “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers,” or “Danger’s over, Banana Breakfast is saved.”

My program ran that time and the card on top said, “A screaming comes across the sky – Christine,” which made me so happy I didn’t stop smiling for a day.

The next program, I added a comment card that said, “Christine, I can’t see you – Ronald.

And it came back with, “I know, but I can see you. I think you’re cute – Christine.

So I thought about it and worked up my courage. At the end of a program that I larded with my best quotes from the composition book I carried with me and scribbled in all the time… my commonplace book, I finished with a card that said “Christine, I want to meet you – Ronald.”

All that night I was the first to fight their way in to grab any program that slid down the chute, only to be disappointed again and again as other student’s projects ran before mine. Finally, as the sky was beginning to turn a light pink in the west, my program dropped. On top was a card. I ran back to my dorm room to read it, not daring to look at it anywhere in public.

It said, “Love to Ronald. Snarky’s at six, on Thursday. Don’t be late – Christine.”

Snarky’s was a little chain restaurant off campus not far from the computer building. My heart almost beat out of my chest. Thursday was going to take a long time to get there.


I didn’t want to be late, so I showed up outside Snarky’s a half hour early and paced back and front in front of the place for fifteen minutes.

I was so nervous and excited. I had barely been on a date since I arrived at school and had never had a girlfriend. This was so weird, meeting somebody I had never even seen… but it was my best chance and I was going crazy.

So I went inside a good fifteen minutes early, sat down, and asked for water. Twenty minutes later, nobody had shown up.

“Well, sport, you ready to order yet?” asked my waitress. She was skinny and wearing this awful uniform covered with little badges that had smiley faces or stupid phrases like, “Have a nice day!” or “Today is the first day in the rest of your life.” She stood there tapping her pen on her little black order book.

“I’m sorry, I already told you; I’m waiting for someone. I’m waiting for my date.”

“She better get here soon, this is our busy time and I need the tips off of this table.”

“She was supposed to be here by now. I’m sorry. It’ll be any minute now, I’m sure.”

“OK Romeo, what does she look like? Maybe she’s already sitting somewhere else.”

I looked up at the waitress. Her name tag said, “Mabel.”

“I’m sorry, Mabel, I have no idea what she looks like.”

“Give me a break… you don’t think my name really is Mabel, do you. Not that I care but I’m Audrey. I hate these name tags and write something different every day. Oh, and what the hell do you mean you don’t know what she looks like?”

So I explained it. Everything. I even had the punch card, the one that’s in the frame, tucked into my jacket pocket. I showed it to her.

“Oh Shit!” she said, “Those bastards!”

I was confused. All I could do is stammer out some garbled noise.

“It’s those computer lab guys. They are in here all the time. A bunch of them. The worst dirty hairy stupid idiots you ever saw. And they are lousy tippers too.”

I still didn’t get it. “What are you talking about?”

“Wake up and smell the coffee, sport. They set you up. They sent you those cards so you couldn’t tell from the handwriting. There isn’t any Christine. They’re probably in the back room checking on you, laughing their idiot asses off. I’ll go check.”

So she spun and left. I sat there shaking, doing everything I could do to keep from bursting into tears. I cradled my water and gripped it hard, to stop my hands from shaking. After about ten minutes, Audrey the waitress came back.

“Sure enough, sport. They are in the back room having a good old time at your expense. Don’t look, they’re peeking over the salad bar at you. I’m sorry, that sucks, those guys are real assholes. And bad tippers, which kinda goes together.”

I could feel my ears burning. I was terribly dizzy and sick. It felt like everybody in the place knew my humiliation and was staring at me. The normal buzz of conversation rose around me and I knew everyone was talking about me. I couldn’t even raise my eyes, my sight up above my empty water glass.

“Nothing I can do,” I mumbled.

“Do? Do?” Audrey the waitress said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, sport. Their order was up when I was back in the kitchen. I had the dishwashers all spit in their sandwiches.”

When she said that, everything suddenly broke and the room seemed silent and clear and bright as noon. I looked up into the face of Audrey the waitress and knew then that I was suddenly hopelessly and helplessly in love.

And that was how I met your grandmother.


“I’ve heard you say so much about Grandma Audrey,” Sammy said. “I wish I could’a met her.”

“Me too. We married a year after graduation and your father was born a year after that. He didn’t even know her, really, he was only three when they found the cancer in her pancreas. She went downhill very fast. Back then, we didn’t even take very many pictures, except of your father.”

“So you don’t have much of hers,” Sammy said. “That’s why you keep that card in the frame. That way you have something to remember her by.”

“Not much of hers? Oh no, you’re wrong about that. The only reason I keep that card is…. well, to make little boys like you ask questions. I remember her by your father. For all these years she’s been gone… every day… no… every second of every minute of every hour I remember her by your father, and your big sister, and you… and maybe even your kids someday.”

Sammy didn’t know what to say. He brought his new tablet up and snapped a picture of his Grandpa Ron sitting in his desk chair and then set it as the background on the screen.

“Enough of this,” Grandpa Ron said, “Let’s go outside and throw the football around before it gets too dark. Or is that too old fashioned for you?”

“Nope, that sounds cool.”

“Well, you find the ball and I’ll be out in a minute once I turn the lights out in here.”

Sammy spun and ran off to look for the football. Ron stood, and stretched the creakiness out of his bones. He reached over and turned off the lamp. Before he left the room he leaned over and placed a quick kiss on the glass that covered the framed punch card.

 

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