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.

 

Two Women

I was talking to someone at work about the viral video that is going around, the one about the NASA scientist that made the elaborate, over-engineered, hilarious booby trap to revenge upon thieves that steal Amazon packages. My point is that he made the package look too tempting – he was creating thieves. The other guy disagreed – he felt that people either were thieves or not. I think that it is more a matter of degree, and everyone, sometimes, steals something.

I’ve stolen something. There is a bar that I visited this year, one that had an old fashioned photo booth back in the back, next to the filthy bathrooms. On the wall by the booth was a torn up cork board. A lot of people thumbtacked their strips of four photos into the cork, leaving them for posterity. I picked up a handful that looked interesting and stole them.

I’ve scanned the strips and I think I’ll take them, one at time, four photos at a time, and write a thousand or so words about the people in the photographs. Or, more accurately, what I imagine about the two people.

 

Two Women

 

One day, due to a mix-up at a department store wedding registry two weeks before the scheduled weddings, Moss Williams and Isabel Green discovered they were both engaged to the same man, Augustus Piper.

Moss William’s condominium was on the twenty third floor and she had always been disappointed that the windows didn’t open. She lifted up an expensive, exquisite abstract marble sculpture that Augustus Piper had bought her on one of his business trips to Venice and fixed the window. The marble made an appropriate expensive explosive boom when it hit the concrete over two hundred feet below – followed by an exquisite tinkle as the shards of broken glass caught up. Augustus had bought her the condo and had planned on moving in too after the wedding.

She enjoyed the sting of the cold wind whipping through the open wound in the glass wall of the building as she collected everything that either belonged to Augustus or had been bought by him and would fit through the hole in the window left by the marble. This was everything in the place other than the furniture. With amazing energy and rapidity she threw it all out.

The only thing she saved was the cocaine. Moss lined it all up in a group that looked like a tiny neatly plowed field of snowy ground on the glass coffee table – then hurled the expensive sterling necklace with its hidden compartment out too. He had bought her the jewelry in San Francisco. He had bought the cocaine too, but it was too good to waste… even in fury. She visited the little field on the coffee table whenever her energy began to fade.

“Here, dear,” Isabel’s mother called, “I’m back from the store with the ice cream.” She began unloading the pints from the shrink-wrapped cardboard flat and loaded them into her daughter’s freezer. “It’s a little soft from the trip back from the store, but I think it’s still edible… do you want a pint now?”

The loud sobbing from the bedroom paused for a few seconds. “Yes,” Isabel said, “Bring me a pint and a spoon.”

“What flavor? They sold these variety flats and that’s what I bought.”

“Who cares mother? Just bring me something.”

“Chunky Monkey OK?” asked Isabel’s mother.  The sobbing didn’t stop this time, so she assumed that Chunkey Monkey wasn’t good, so she exchanged it with a pint of chocolate mint. The spoon she chose from her daughter’s drawer didn’t look quite right, so she bent over the sink and gave it a quick scrubbing before heading back to the bedroom.

It took two hours and three pints of ice cream to get Isabel to quit crying enough for her mother to feel like she could leave and head home. Alone, Isabel felt that one more pint might hit the spot.  After all, she had been starving herself for almost a year in order to fit into the wedding dress that Augustus had picked out.

Before all this her mother had been wondering how she was going to spend the insurance settlement from her third husband’s death and when, at last, her only daughter was engaged she had her outlet. She paid for the elaborate and expensive wedding dress without hesitation. She bought that hideous marble sculpture at the gallery and insisted Isabel give it to Augustus for his birthday. Her mother gave Isabel the money for the little silver cocaine vault that Augustus had his eye on. Augustus always liked his coke and Isabel always was willing beg cash from her mom and  to drive down to the South Side of town to pick some up for him – though, of course, she always lied to her mother about what the money was for.

Now all that was over. Isabel sat up on the edge of the bed and forced herself to try and imagine what life was going to be like now… how it was going to go on without Augustus. She picked up the little drop knife she kept on her bed stand. Even that reminded her of Augustus. One evening she was standing in a dingy alley in the South Side of town waiting for her connection to show up. She was kicking at the dirt and felt something with the toe of her show. It was the knife, buried in the oily dust of the alley. She fished it out, took it home, and cleaned it up. She liked to think of what horrors that little lifeless piece of stainless steel had seen.

Isabel flicked the knife open and closed a couple of times, thinking about one more horror.

 

———————————————————————————————————————————–

 

Moss looked at the piece of paper for the thousandth time. There was the name of the store, and Augustus’ name and then, under that, instead of, “Moss Williams” it said, “Isabel Green.” She stared at it and wondered what kind of evil worthless harpy that name represented, a name that stole her fiancé. Then she stared at the next line, a phone number. She had seen that number on Augustus’ cell… seen it many times. She had assumed it was his work.

She dialed.

“Why are you mad at me?’ Isabel cried, “I didn’t do anything!”

“Yes you did, you stole my fiancé,” Moss said.

“No I didn’t! I didn’t know anything about you. You stole my fiancé too.  He’s the bastard that screwed both of us. Literally.”

Moss hadn’t thought of that.

A long silence on the line. “What?” asked Isabel, “Are you still there?”

“Yes… I’m here. Give me a minute. I hadn’t thought of that.”

Finally Moss decided.

“Isabel?” she said, “I think we need to meet. We need to hash this out.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“No, not at all. But I don’t see any choice.”

“Ok, Where?”

“You know the pub down on Carol Street, the Golden Horse?”

“Yeah I know the place.”

“Eight tonight.”

 

———————————————————————————————————————————

 

The two sat at a dark table in the back corner. At first they did more staring than talking. But after a few rounds – Moss drank Jameson, Isabel light beer – they began to open up. Each was surprised at how easy it was to get along with the other. They did, after all, have a lot in common.

“I have a confession to make,” said Isabel.

“What?” asked Moss.

“I didn’t know how this was going to go, so I brought this.” She reached in her purse and brought out the drop knife. “I hope you’re not pissed.”

“Oh,” replied Moss, “That’s nothing.”

“Really?’

“Really, look at this.” She reached into her purse for something also. “You know I’m a seamstress? Have been since I was a little girl.”

“No idea, really.”

“So, like you brought your knife, I brought this.” She brandished a heavy, wicked looking pair of pinking shears. She moved it so the light sparked across the wavy saw teeth.

“Wow.”

“Yeah wow.”

“Yeah, I know there’s only one thing we’d both like to use these on now,” said Isabel with an evil chuckle. “I’d love to see what those shears would do to it.”

“Ughh, as much fun as that would be… that’s one thing I don’t ever want to see ever again.”

The two women started laughing and seeing each other laugh, couldn’t stop until the both doubled over with pain in their diaphragms.”

“You know?” said Moss, “I’ve had another idea, one a lot less violent. Something simple. Something to do first, put the fear of God into the rat bastard.”

“What?”

“Back there, by the bathroom, there’s a photo booth. One of those old fashioned ones. The ones that take a strip of four pictures.”

“Yeah?”

“Let’s take some shots. Together. And send them to that son of a bitch. That will scare the shit out of him – the thought that we are together, plotting”

“Yeah lets. Let’s flip him off.”

 

 

 

 

 

Zastrozzi

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
― Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

Spirit of the Centennial, Woman’s Building, Fair Park, Dallas, Texas

Oblique Strategy: Is it finished?

The sky was unusually obscured, the sun had sunk beneath the western mountain, and its departing ray tinged the heavy clouds with a red glare.–The rising blast sighed through the towering pines, which rose loftily above Matilda’s head: the distant thunder, hoarse as the murmurs of the grove, in indistinct echoes mingled with the hollow breeze; the scintillating lightning flashed incessantly across her path, as Matilda, heeding not the storm, advanced along the trackless forest.

The crashing thunder now rattled madly above, the lightnings flashed a larger curve, and at intervals, through the surrounding gloom, showed a scathed larch, which, blasted by frequent storms, reared its bare head on a height above.

Matilda sat upon a fragment of jutting granite, and contemplated the storm which raged around her. The portentous calm, which at intervals occurred amid the reverberating thunder, portentous of a more violent tempest, resembled the serenity which spread itself over Matilda’s mind–a serenity only to be succeeded by a fiercer paroxysm of passion.
—-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Zastrozzi

Two down, ninety-eight to go.

A few days ago, while working on my goals for 2018 I decided to set a goal of reading a hundred books in the year. Thinking about it, I decided the only way to pull this off was to read short books. I made a list of 66 short novels and wrote about it. Thinking more about it, I was excited enough to jump the gun and start the 100 books immediately. The first one I read was Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

How I chose this one, I have no idea. While I have nothing against real books, I knew that to read a hundred books I’ll have to put a lot of them onto my Kindle. So I started perusing the various sources of free ebooks online (especially Project Gutenberg) and downloaded Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first novel, Zastrozzi, from Project Gutenberg Australia.

It is a true Gothic Novel – a revenge tale of overwhelming lust and evil. There is nothing subtle here, but who is in the mood for that? I liked it a lot more than I expected. It is short – about a hundred pages or so, and a quick read.

A wood engraving by Cecil Keeling from the 1955 Golden Cockerel Press edition of Zastrozzi

It is interesting how many similar scenes there are in this book to Frankenstein – written by Shelley’s wife Mary. That reminded me of the terribly wonderful and extremely entertaining (if fatally flawed) over-the-top film of that fateful weekend where Mary Shelley wrote her tale The Modern Prometheus, basically on a dare – Gothic directed by the mad genius Ken Russell. I’d like to watch that thing again.

Looking around, I see that an updated Zastrozzi was also made into a British mimi-series (also from 1986) starring Tilda Swinton as Julia. I’d love to see that, but it’s pretty obscure. Have to keep my eyes out.

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 13 – Hop-Frog by Edgar Allan Poe

Deep Ellum
Texas

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 13 – Hop-Frog by Edgar Allan Poe

Read it online here:

Hop-Frog by Edgar Allan Poe

The eight ourang-outangs, taking Hop-Frog’s advice, waited patiently until midnight (when the room was thoroughly filled with masqueraders) before making their appearance. No sooner had the clock ceased striking, however, than they rushed, or rather rolled in, all together–for the impediments of their chains caused most of the party to fall, and all to stumble as they entered.

—-Edgar Allan Poe, Hop-Frog

Everyone has read Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in school. Everyone is familiar with The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, or A Cask of Amontillado. But I bet you haven’t read Hop-Frog.

It is a brutally simple tale of revenge and horror. Never one for subtlety, Poe goes for the jugular here, and delivers. I’m surprised this tale hasn’t been used more often (as has Poe’s other tropes) in modern horror films. It’s a yarn that holds up well, almost two centuries after it was written.

An interesting fact about the story is that, apparently, Poe wrote it as a literary “revenge” against a woman, Elizabeth F. Ellet, and her circle of friends. They had been trafficking in gossip about Poe and alleged improprieties to the extent that Poe’s wife felt they had driven her to her deathbed.

Don’t mess with a short story writer, or you will be immortalized in horror.

Poe on Writing:

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
—-from THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION

Coal and coke fire, Frisco, Texas.

Monday Flash Fiction – The Lunch Thief

“Did you bring the duct tape?”

“Of course, did you bring the… you know… the pliers?”

“Yup.”

Sam pulled a hideous looking pair of rusty heavy duty curved-jaw carpenter’s pincers from the inside of his jacket. “I was going to clean these up last night, but….”

“No, they are more frightening that way.”

“I know, right?”

“Now when Clayton gets here with the chloroform, we’ll be ready.”

Sam and Brandon stood at the entrance to the office cubicle, fidgeting, Sam clutching his pincers and Brandon trying to push his hand through the cardboard tube at the center of the roll of gray shiny tape. They both could feel their nerves ratcheting up when Clayton came walking down the aisle between the cubicles. He was carrying a cardboard shoe box under his arm and the two could hear the glass bottle rattling around as he moved. He had a white folded face towel in his hand.

“Now we’re ready,” said Sam, “Now we’ll catch the son of a bitch that’s been stealing everybody’s lunches.”

—————————————————————–

“So, as you see… we have all three of you pretty much red-handed,” the Human Resources Woman said as she stopped the video. “Plus, his blood and your prints… partials, but enough, were on the pincers we found in your desk. Those things were horrible, where did you find something like that?”

“My grandfather had them in his woodshop, I picked them up when he died.” Sam kicked himself internally. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice that surveillance camera before.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“You have been assigned to that cube… how long? Seven years?”

Sam nodded.

“That camera has been there all this time, a black dome over your head, in plain view, but it had disappeared from your mind, they always do.”

Sam glared at the Human Resources Woman. “Yeah, you look at something for long enough, you don’t notice it anymore.”

“That’s why we don’t bother to hide the cameras.”

Sam looked at the Human Resources Woman, really looked at her for the first time. He was never good at guessing ages and she could be anything from twenty-five to forty. She was wearing a standard and severe woman’s business outfit, a subtle patterned dark gray tube from skirt to shoulder carefully designed to disguise the fact she was a human being. Her hair was pulled back so tight it gave her a rictus grin.

Behind her desk was a blown-up copy of a diploma from a school with the word “middle” and two different compass directions preceding the name of a distant impoverished state. He glanced at the nameplate on her desk but forgot what it said as soon as his eyes returned to her.

Sam glowered. “Have you brought in Brandon and Clayton yet?”

“No, not yet. After we found Markson duct-taped to the water heater in the janitor’s closet, bleeding and missing most of a molar, it didn’t take long to find the incriminating evidence.”

“Markson, the asshole. So he ratted us out.”

“Nope, he wouldn’t say a word. He didn’t show up for work after that, though.”

“No, I guessed he wouldn’t. That was the point.”

“But the lunches kept on disappearing, didn’t they.”

“Yeah… dammit. We were sure that it was Markson.”

“But you were wrong.”

“Yes we were.”

“He never confessed, even under your torture, did he?”

“No, not a peep. He said that his lunches were stolen out of the office refrigerator too. So now what? Are you going to fire me? I don’t blame you. Let’s get on with it.”

The Human Resources Woman expanded her smile enough that the bun on the back of her head dipped a little.

“Fire you, oh no. There is an opening in the operations department, a district level manager’s position, with an office. You are one of the three remaining candidates.”

“Wait? What? You are offering me a promotion? But I don’t know anything about operations. I’m an accountant.”

“Here at Yoyodyne, we value pluck, independence, and innovation. Your reaction to the stolen lunches seems to indicate that you have the qualities we value in a management setting.”

“Yoyodyne? What does that mean? The company is called Earnest and Baynes. I’m not even really sure what we do… what they do.”

“Yes, that is our public name. We are offering you the opportunity to join the inner circle, the people that really understand what is going on. The group in charge of the Yoyodyne operation.”

Sam’s head was spinning; he found it hard to catch his breath. The air suddenly felt thin, lacking in oxygen.

“Are you interested,” said the Human Resources Woman. She didn’t ask it as a question.

“I guess,” said Sam. “What do I need to do to qualify?”

“That is for you to figure out.”

Sam rubbed his face with his palm, trying to decide what to do next. Suddenly, an important question came to mind.

“You said there were three candidates. Who are the other two?”

“Brandon and Clayton, of course. They have not been notified and hopefully, never will be. We have decided to give you the first shot.”

As Sam turned to leave, the Human Resources Woman called him back.

“We wanted to return these.”

She handed him the pinchers. They had been cleaned and the rust buffed off, leaving gleaming arcs of steel. Sam nodded, slipped them under his suit jacket, and left.

—————————————————————–

Getting rid of Clayton was easy. He had always been a natural crook, but very sloppy, plus fast and loose with the books in his department. A detailed anonymous letter to the local tax board inspector (mailed from another city) was all it took. Everyone lined the corridor while Clayton was marched out of the maze of cubes clutching a thin plastic grocery bag with his meager personal possessions. They didn’t even give him the dignity of the customary cardboard box.

After he left, a fast wave of employees fell upon Clayton’s cubicle to grab any left-behind office supplies. Only Sam and Brandon stood back. Sam eyed his rival and caught a distinct stink-eye glare from his former co-conspirator. Had the Human Resources Woman lied? Did Brandon know something?

It was on.

Both sides brought out every dirty trick in the book. Tiny slivers of seafood hidden in the crevices of the cubical. Invitations to non-existent meetings across town at critical times. Subscriptions to gay-porn message servers with work email addresses. Wiping out of data files. A potato in an exhaust pipe. Subtle, yet critical changes to customer databases. Viruses inserted in desktop computers.

Finally, though, Sam obtained information from a young administrative assistant about Brandon meeting up with a cute intern at a hot new nightspot. Sam knew that was the evening Brandon’s wife always went out with a group of friends. A careful email insured that the group chose the proper place to meet and was sure to run into Brandon and his illicit date.

And that was the end of Brandon.
—————————————————————–

As he left for home, an hour earlier than he had for seven years, Sam locked up his Yoyodyne badge in his desk and pulled out the Earnest and Baynes badge he wore outside of work. He took one long last look at the spectacular views from both corner office floor-to-ceiling glass windows before leaving his private office and dropping off a pile of work on his assistant’s desk.

The executive elevator was waiting and whisked him to the executive parking garage where his new Mercedes sat tight in its assigned spot. His smile turned to a scowl when he saw the heavy yellow boot locked on the front wheel. There was a typed note under one wiper blade, “Please come see us in the garage office and we can settle this minor matter.”

“What the fuck!” Sam screamed as he yanked the note off his windshield and strode toward the cinder block office. “I will have someone’s ass over this!”

He jerked open the heavy metal door and jumped into the small, windowless office. There were three parking garage employees standing by the opposite wall, facing away from him, all wearing stained yellow coveralls.

“Ok, which one of you assholes booted my Mercedes?” Sam screamed. His voice echoed around in the tiny office.

One of the men clicked something in his hand, a small remote. Sam heard a bolt slide in the door behind him. Before he could ask why the door was locked, the three turned around.

It was Brandon, Clayton, and Markson. Brandon had a roll of tape that looked like the same roll they had used on Markson, weeks before. Clayton had the same bottle of chloroform. And Markson swung something long, red, and massive, holding it with both hands. It was a big pair of nasty looking heavy duty bolt cutters. Swinging the handles, Markson made sure Sam could see the steel levers forcing the thick jaws open and shut.

“There are things you might miss a lot more than a tooth,” Markson said in a frightening, calm, matter-of-fact voice.

“Hey… what the hell?” Sam pleaded in desperation as the three closed in on him. “Come on guys. Don’t blame me, I didn’t steal anybody’s lunch.”