Short Story Of the Day, Technology by Bill Chance

“There are three intolerable things in life – cold coffee, lukewarm champagne, and overexcited women…” he said, trailing off.

—-Bill Chance, Technology

 

 

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 (#16). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 

Anna Karina

 


 

Technology

Wilfred had tested positive and was in strict quarantine. He wrote low-level code for a living and could easily work from home. His condominium was more than large enough for one person. There were grocery stores and number of restaurants in his area that offered delivery – he wasn’t going to starve.

But he hated eating alone.

His place had plenty of storage space and he was always fighting his hoarding tendencies. Every now and then, though, his habit of keeping stuff served him well. Not very often, but sometimes.

As he dreaded another sandwich alone (he had taken to eating over the counter where he made his food to minimize cleanup) he had a sudden idea. Digging around in a disused walk-in closet he found an ancient dot-matrix printer and a big box of blank continuous pin-feed paper. He even had some extra stashed ribbon cartridges, enough to do a lot of printing.

He dragged it out and set it up on a sturdy side table. He was disappointed when he realized his laptop didn’t have a parallel port – but Amazon had a surprising collection of USB to parallel adapters with prime overnight delivery. While he was on the site he ordered a pack of large foam core board, some rubber cement, and a nice cutter for curved mat boards. Tape and scissors, he already had.

One of his common tasks as a code jockey was to write printer drivers, and it didn’t take him long to cobble together something to output some surprisingly good graphics (black and white, of course) to the ancient dot matrix.

The next job was to pick five people and download some quality images. His dining room table would seat six and he had nice quality place settings for himself and five others. There were so many folks to choose from, but it was his party and he could invite whomever he wanted.

It took a while to get used to the noise of the dot matrix in his condo. He had forgotten how loud and slow the things were. But the image of the paper slowly unfolding from the box and running through the printer was comforting and the noise ultimately became almost soothing.

Then there was the gluing, the cutting and trimming, and putting it all together. The smell of the rubber cement was nasty in the closed in space, and Wilfred decided he should have used double sided tape. But it did work and the odor finally dissipated.

Finally, he was done. He had several days to decide on his first menu and have the food delivered. He decided that it didn’t have to be too fancy and he should make what he liked. Nobody was getting enough exercise so it better be healthy. He settled on baked chicken meatballs with garlic-dill yogurt sauce served over zucchini noodles with mixed vegetables and sweet potatoes on the side.

He filled the six plates and put one at each place. Then he filled glasses with water and a nice white that he had stashed away.

So there he was with five other people – the foam core cutouts firmly taped up on each chair, arranged man-woman, with him at one head.

To his right was the French actress Anna Karina – the photo he printed was of her at her prime as a star of the early sixties New Wave. Her stunning beauty translated well to the black and white dot matrix printing – so many of her movies weren’t in color – Wilfred thought of her that way.

“After all,” she said, “Things are what they are. A message is a message, plates are plates, men are men, and life is life.”

To his left as the author Patricia Highsmith. She was born in Texas but settled in Paris and had a very unconventional life. She was burdened with alcoholism and depression, but sometimes that made for lively dinner conversation. She was plainspoken, dryly funny, and fun at the table, in general.

“I know you have it in you, Wilfred,” Patricia said suddenly at the end of a silence, “the capacity to be terribly happy.”

Beyond her was Oscar Wilde. Wilfred always loved the way he wove witty aphorisms through his writing and imagined he was always good for a quip to keep the conversation going. He was not disappointed.

“I’m a man of simple tastes. I’m always satisfied with the best,” he said, and everyone raised their glasses.

On the other side, next to Anna Karina, was the massive presence of Orson Welles. Mr. Welles was on good behavior and really enjoyed the food. His tales of some of the famous people he had met kept everyone enraptured.

“There are three intolerable things in life – cold coffee, lukewarm champagne, and overexcited women…” he said, trailing off.

Finally, at the other end of the table, was Cleopatra. Her English was surprisingly good for an ancient Egyptian Queen. She looked at life and the world in general in a wildly different way that anybody else and had the others thinking deeply about their own perspectives.

“Marc Antony?” she said, “I never understood how such a big man had such a small brain.” And everybody chuckled.

The meal ended but Wilfred still sat there enjoying the company and the conversation. Finally he collected the plates and glasses and was momentarily bothered by the amount of food that was wasted.

“But that’s the price for good company,” Patricia Highsmith pointed out. And she was right.

Everyone had such a good time. So they made plans for another dinner in a few days.

“I’m sorry,” said Oscar Wilde, “I have to fly to Paris for a meeting with my agent. There’s a play coming out and he is desperate for me to make some changes.”

The others talked about it for a minute and the decision was made to invite Groucho Marx.

“Then Groucho it is,” said Wilfred. He had plenty of paper and foamcore left and had learned to sleep through the sound of printing.

 

Short Story of the Day (redux) – The Quest for “Blank Claveringi” by Patricia Highsmith

“I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me.”
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt

Illustration by Jean L. Huens for the Saturday Evening Post. Done for the short story “The Snails,” by Patricia Highsmith.

A long time ago – in 2012 I wrote a blog entry about a short story I remembered reading when I was a child.
The short story had scared the crap out of me when I first read it in 1967 (I would have been ten years old) in The Saturday Evening Post and it had never left my mind. In 2012 I did some web searching, found the story, and in a trip to the library found and read a couple of different versions of it.
Over the years since many people have hit that blog post searching for information on the story. It seems I wasn’t the only child frightened by this story of giant man eating snails.
The other day I finally found an online version of the story – someone has uploaded a PDF of the the version from Patricia Highsmith’s collection The Snail Watcher and Other Stories.
You can find the PDF here:
The Quest for “Blank Claveringi”
(unfortunately, the PDF has gone away. I’ll redo the link if I find another copy).
It’s a cool story – go read it.
Back in 2012, I wrote a bit of… I guess it would be fan fiction – a sequel to The Quest for “Blank Claveringi” – You can read that here:
I have wanted to write another sequel – a monster story about the National Guard fighting giant snails – sort of a Godzilla-type thing – The Attack of the “Blank Claveringi” – maybe I’ll write that over the weekend or sometime.
So little time.

The Quest for the “Blank Claveringi”

Illustration by Jean L. Huens for the Saturday Evening Post. Done for the short story “The Snails,” by Patricia Highsmith.


A while back, viewing a hyper-realistic sculpture of hundreds of snails climbing a beer stein to their doom jarred loose an ancient flake of memory from the cobwebby and calcified ruins inside my skull. It was a memory of a short story from my childhood. It’s funny how strangely strong, yet distorted, these moth-eaten impressions can be. I remembered a story about a man on an island looking for giant man-eating snails and coming to a bad end.

Little bits, which may or may not be accurate… I remembered reading it in a magazine; I remembered an illustration showing the snail; I remembered a long, slow battle to the death between the man and the snail. Oh, I did remember being shocked at the ending. I think the story was written in the first person and I was confused at the death of the protagonist… who was telling the tale?

Now that the memory was jarred loose, it had to be teased out or it would drive me nuts. So, off to the Internet. It didn’t take too many crude search queries to quickly realize that many people had been looking for this same story. It didn’t take much more work to find the name of the story, “The Quest for the ‘Blank Claveringi.’”

I was surprised to read that the story was by Patricia Highsmith, the Forth-Worth born (though she fled quite effectively to Europe) author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train.” The author had a particular affection for snails – from the book Snail, by Peter Williams:

So attached was the author Patricia Highsmith to snails that they became her constant travelling companions. Secreted in a large handbag or, in the case of travel abroad, carefully positioned under each breast, they provided her with comfort and companionship in what she perceived to be a hostile world.

The story was included in an Alfred Hitchcock collection of tales for youngsters, “Alfred Hitchock’s Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense.” That must have been where I read it, not in a magazine. The only problem is that the book seems to have first come out in 1973 and I felt like I was younger than that when I read it. But again, memories are funny, I must have got it wrong.

A quick check of the Richardson Library’s website and I found the book. So I went down there, grabbed it off of the shelves (It was odd looking for the book in the children’s section – it was such a horrific story) and I sat down and read it.

That was the story from my childhood. Of course, a lot of it I didn’t remember, but there can’t be too many tales set on an island with a scientist fleeing from a man-eating snail. If you wonder about the title – “The Quest for the ‘Blank Claveringi,’” the protagonist, Avery Clavering, is fantasizing about getting the new species of giant snail, about the size of a Volkswagen, named after him… though he can’t decide on the genus (thus the “Blank”).

I was wrong about the story being in first person. It is told from the protagonist’s point of view and does go inside his head – that must have been what threw me. The horror of the story is real – the snail is slow, of course, but relentless. The hero can walk faster than the snail, but the island is small and the thing will eventually catch up. He has to sleep sometime.

I enjoyed the story and made a note of reading some more Highsmith. Looking in the front of the book, I discovered that the story was part of a collection called, “The Snail-Watcher and other stories.” The library had that one too, and I checked it out. That collection has at least two horrific snail-related tales… I guess the woman did have a thing for slimy mollusks.

In the front of that collection I found another clue – it said, ““The Quest for the ‘Blank Claveringi’” originally appeared in slightly altered form in The Saturday Evening Post, as “The Snails.”

Back to the Internet. A little searching found that the story was in the June 17, 1967 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. I would have been ten years old then… and that felt about right. I checked the library archive, and they had the 1967 ‘Post in bound form in the archives. The woman at the information desk didn’t seem to understand what I wanted (“Yes, we have magazines… 1967?”) but eventually I was able to get her to go back and retrieve the volume for me. I had to sign a form and give up something (my library card) as collateral to get the tome, and I did.

It was really cool to sit down at a library study station and look through a set of forty-five year old magazines. The ads, the photographs, the illustrations…. pretty damn cool.

I found the story, with an excellent illustration by Jean-Louis Huens. In the white space above the title, someone had written in pencil, “This is what I wanted you to read.” So, I am not the only person on a quest for this story, not even the only one to end up in the archives of the Richardson Public Library.

I took a photo of the illustration with my phone and then sat there and read the story again. Since I had cruised through the Alfred Hitchcock version only a few minutes before, I immediately began to notice differences in the text. At first they seemed minor, only polishings, or rearrangements of phrases. But as I neared the end, the story veered and suddenly it was a completely different tale altogether.

This was probably the version I had read as a ten-year-old child. I seemed to remember another person on the island, and that was only true on the Saturday Evening Post Version. Though the only real significant difference between the two is in the last handful of paragraphs, the thrust of the two plots diverged completely. While the Hitchcock version was an existential tale of the futility of man against the inexorable power of nature, the second was a revenge tale of murder and madness.

I really don’t know why the story was rewritten so savagely, though I think I did like the Hitchcock version (which I assume is the revised tale) a tiny bit better.

At any rate, I checked out two of her books of short stories – The Snail-Watcher and other stories, and Little Tales of Misogyny (a slim volume of very short works about very bad people). I really should not read this kind of stuff. What I am reading is a very strong influence on what I am writing and these stories play into my natural tenancies toward repulsive scribbling.

But it is what it is. As a matter of fact… I have to write something tomorrow for my Sunday Snippets…. Maybe something about giant Volkswagen-sized man-eating snails…. maybe a sequel. What would happen if someone brought a snail back to the mainland?

Snails can reproduce frighteningly fast under the right conditions, you know.

Sunday Snippet – The Revenge of the “Blank Claveringi”