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.

 

Short Story Of the Day – The Iceberg (flash fiction) by Bill Chance

“The old endless chain of love, tolerance, indifference, aversion and disgust”
― Samuel Beckett

(click to enlarge) “The Icebergs” by Fredrick Church, Dallas Museum of Art

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 (#54) More than half way 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.


The Iceberg

MODERN AMERICAN ARTS DIGEST —– AUGUST 13, 1996
ELMORE SPENCER – AN ARTIST WATERS HIS ROOTS
———————————————————-

Elmore Spencer has climbed the mountain of the art world. From a child prodigy that startled adults with his sketching skills at the age of six to a celebrated student of the Paris art schools to a meteoric rise to the jet-setting toast of the New York Art Society, Spencer has had it all.

Instrumental in founding the “New Realism” school, he then rejected this return to “Painting that looks like something” and veered off into innovative artistic experiments that challenged the border between art and observer, maintaining his success and popularity through it all.

Now, he struggles with a return to his roots, to maintain the connection with his audience that has been robbed by his decades of success. The conflict of the avant-garde and the traditional, realistic and symbolic, is at the heart of what Spencer is up to.

“It’s been a long road, but I’ve been lucky,” Spencer said in a recent interview, “To others its looks like a climb, a rise, but it’s a spiral, the further I go, the more times I return to the same place.”

His newest work is a sculpture, a pair of lovers – hyper-realistic. They sit on a bench in the darkest corner of a room with a film playing against a screen, they are only visible during a portion of the film, illuminated by a flame on the screen. They are locked in a kiss, an embrace, his hand is slipped inside her shirt, hers rests on his thighs. Most visitors think the couple is real, the museum received dozens of complaints.

Another sculpture is a mechanical museum guard. He stands inside the room. On those days the film is turned off. Infrared proximity sensors pick up any patron that enters the room, the ersatz guard then plays a recording, “I don’t know, they’re supposed to turn this film on.”

Other sculptures are occasionally placed in the room – such as an ersatz murder victim with a knife protruding from his back. These are obviously intended to shock or annoy. On certain days the room is empty, leading to a scene where patrons in the know walk around examining each other, trying to determine what is real and what isn’t.

Spencer often spends the day in his own installation, sitting on a bench with his famous sketchpad, drawing the observers. This has been so successful, he has taken to walking around the museum sketching patrons looking at art.

“As artists we live for the people that look at our work, really. We rarely think about them, or study them, or try to incorporate their lives into the art itself. I want to change that…….”

———————————————————-

“Shelby, Shelby!”

She turned from the painting, a huge panel covering most of the wall, hand painted with extreme skill to look like a blow-up of an article from an art magazine, to see her husband standing there.

“What do you want?”

“It’s time to leave.”

“I’m not finished reading this.”

“What the hell?”

“It’s by Spencer, My Life, it’s called. I haven’t decided what it means yet.” Shelby felt anger welling up in her throat. She’s known Jim, her husband, since they were children and they had argued many times over the years, but nothing like lately. There was a fight coming on, mean and nasty, with no resolution. She could feel the heat rising, like a hot nut right under her sternum.

“Come on!” Jim said, placing his hand on her arm, “We have things to do.”

Shelby wanted to explode, but the Kooning museum was not the place to have a knock-down, drag-out, so she walked stiffly in silence, stewing. They passed toward the entrance until they reached an area dominated by a huge landscape painting; the most famous work in the museum. It was a scene of icebergs, a giant white slope, under a brown and purple sky. The ice in the foreground was littered with debris, a shattered mast, a glacier torn boulder. The ice rose in craggy veined cliffs pierced by a surprising emerald green frozen tunnel. The calm sea was disturbed only by circular waves radiating out from some unseen event.

She could not stand it any more, she was so furious. Shelby pulled away and sat quickly down on a circular bench in front of the painting. Jim sat down beside her, staring wide-eyed. Pulling in her anger, she started to speak.

“Jim I…”

“Excuse me, folks,” said a man they hadn’t noticed. He was gray-haired, wearing old jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. He was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, a large sketchpad resting on his knees. “Do you mind sitting there for a while, I’d like to draw the two of you. If you don’t mind.”

Jim stammered, “Well, we have…”

“Sure, go right ahead,” Shelby interrupted.

“Alright then, umm. turn toward each other a little, now look at me…. Fine, why don’t you hold her hand a little…. That’s right.”

He started drawing right away. Working with colored pencils and some charcoal and a bit of an eraser. Jim and Shelby felt nervous; the fight, their day quickly forgotten.

“Ummm… try to relax, why don’t you tell me a story. Tell me about when you first met.”

“Well,” Jim started. Shelby was surprised that he spoke up so soon. She was getting ready to talk, but he beat her to it.

“We met in junior high school, seventh grade, we were both thirteen. She sat if front of me in
English class. I remember, I loved her from the first moment I saw her. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Our teacher was old, he would lean on a podium and lecture us all class long. The room was too small, our desks were crammed together, her seat backed right up against my desk. All I would do is sit there and stare at Shelby’s hair. Her blonde hair. Sometimes she’d wear it down and it would fall in cascades right in front of me. Sometimes she’d wear it up, like a golden seashell, a yellow spiral. Sometimes in one ponytail, sometimes two, it didn’t matter. That was my favorite hour of every day, to sit in that hot crowded room and look at Shelby’s hair. I felt like I could do this forever, for the rest of my life.”

Shelby and Jim sat there then and talked. They talked of old times, when they were young and when they started dating. They talked of old friends. They talked of their first apartment, of their first house, of the cars they had bought together, of the meals they had cooked, of the vacations they had taken. They talked until the artist finished. He put his pencils back into a little wooden case.

“Done.”

“Well, can we see it?” they asked together.

“See it? You can have it.”

“Really?”

“Really”

He handed them the paper and thanked them simply. The artist walked around the corner and was gone.

The drawing had the iceberg painting in the background. Carefully done in colored pencil it was amazingly detailed and accurate. He must have been working on it for hours. The painting, or, rather the drawing of the painting faded in an oval spot near the center. He drew only around the edges, leaving a blank spot, waiting as he drew for someone to come along and fill it.

Shelby and Jim filled the oval. She gasped as she saw it, it was a life-like drawing, done in pencil and charcoal, cross-hatch and shades of gray, only a hint of color added. Detailed. It was realistic except that they both were drawn naked.

The lower right corner had a quickly scribbled “ES.”

Over a dozen people surrounded them watching the famous artist work, but Jim and Shelby had not even noticed. Embarrassed by the gathering crowd pointing to details on the sketch, they rolled up the drawing, and headed out to their parked car. They held hands as they walked, Shelby leaned her head on Jim’s shoulder as he drove.

They spent a lot of money to have the print professionally framed and mounted. Never really comfortable with the nudity, they couldn’t hang it in their living room. The framer recognized the signature, told them it would bring a lot of money at a sale and recommended a gallery. Jim and Shelby couldn’t sell it, though, it meant too much to them. They did hang it, in their bedroom, next to the closet.

For many decades, it was the last thing they saw at night when they went to sleep, the first thing in the morning when they woke up.

Short Story Of the Day Time Slips Away (flash fiction) by Bill Chance

“Every guy can basically be boiled down to what he wants and what he’s afraid of.”
― Christopher Moore, Noir

A cute couple.

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

Thanks for reading.


 

Time Slips Away

Matthew and Becca met up at a restaurant a few blocks from his condominium. He had arrived twenty minutes early. His heart leapt when she showed up at the hostess’ podium a half hour late. He was worried she wouldn’t recognize him after all these decades but she rushed to the table and kissed him on the mouth before she said hello.  Matthew had worked through three single malt scotches while he waited and he teetered a bit as he stood and held her chair.

The scotch and flattering light let Matthew think the years had never slipped by. Becca filled him in about the missing time while he listened and smiled. He already knew everything. He was a lawyer, after all, and had the resources. He had never forgotten her. Not a single day had gone by for three decades that he hadn’t thought about Becca. He kept smiling and nodding silently through the recitation, even though he knew and recognized the gaps, the exaggerations, and the little white lies woven through her tale.

“And then there was my third husband. Well, he sure turned out to be a real piece of work. I’ll tell you, three weeks just isn’t long enough to get to know a person. At least I kept my marriage vows with him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, death did us part. He had debts he couldn’t pay. Caught a shiv in the big house. That means….”

“I know what it means. I’m a lawyer.”

“Oh, I guess you are. I guess you do.”

 

Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction), Brain Teaser by Bill Chance

“Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

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

Thanks for reading.


Brain Teaser

 

John Berryman realized that his two seater MGB wasn’t a very practical car, but he didn’t give a damn. It was old and it was sharp and it was cool. But the convertible roof leaked and the heater didn’t work very well. The windshield was constantly fogged in the cold wet spitting rain.

The nighttime city was shattered into iridescent jewels of waterdrops around his view, red brakes, yellow beams and the multicolored neon advertisements like harbingers of an unknown outer world. The cramped car gave off the smell of old canvas and rust, released by the moist stream seeping through from outside. John’s teeth chattered against the cold – though he knew how much better off he was in the car, no matter how freezing, than the poor souls stuck out in the elements.

He thought of Chuck and how miserable he sounded on the phone. John squinted through the fog and rain, looking for the bus stop.

A decade ago Chuck had been there when John needed him. John was broke, homeless and without hope. Chuck took him in, cleaned him up and introduced him around. That was the start of the long climb to where he was now – where he could buy impractical old sports cars when he wanted to.

Chuck hadn’t been so lucky. Now John was ready to return the favor. He had been calling Chuck and offering help. Chuck had been too proud to accept, until now.

He had answered John’s call sounding near death. Chuck was taking public transit, waiting for the bus, when this awful wet windy blue norther cold front invaded. The transit system had collapsed with the weather, and Chuck had no idea when a bus would get to his stop and take him home.

So John gladly jumped in the car ready to speed to the rescue, but Chuck’s phone battery had died before the directions were clear. Now John was looking, for his friend freezing on a bus stop bench. He was stuck in a terrible part of town, miles from anyplace worth being.

And there, suddenly, he was. In the middle of a block, lit by a nearby streetlight, John spotted the familiar form of his friend, recognizable even under the hood of a shabby and very wet jacket. He drove by slowly, smiling at his buddy. There were two other people sitting on the bench beside Chuck, which was sheltered beneath a slanted corrugated roof. It wasn’t doing any good, though, the rain screaming in the wind – hitting them almost horizontally. He parked and headed into the storm.

“John, you found it,” said Chuck “I didn’t give you very good directions.”

“No problem dude, clear as crystal, drove right here,” John lied.

Chuck stood and grabbed his old friend, turning him slightly.

“Oh, let me introduce my fellow bus waiters,” he said. “First, this is Mabel.”

An emaciated, ancient hand emerged from what looked like a pile of rags on the bench next to where Chuck had been sitting. It was shaking and John felt a weak grip as he took it. Looking closely at the rags he saw a thin lined face. She said something so weak that John couldn’t make it out. Chuck turned John with a subtle but strong gesture so that they were away from the bench.

“Hey John,” Chuck said, “I know you drove a long way to get me and I appreciate it, but I’ll tell you, I think we need to give Mabel a ride. She’s freezing in this weather and I’m not sure she can survive if it takes the bus more than an hour to get here… and it probably will.”

“Forget it,” said John, “You are my oldest and best friend and I am going to take you out of here.”

“Well, then, take us both.”

“I can’t, you know the MGB only holds two.”

“Jeez, that’s right,” Chuck looked at the tiny car across the street. It looked like a toy. “No way can we squeeze three into that thing.”

“It’s all right, dear,” a strong voice piped up behind them. “I’ll stay with you until the bus comes. I’ll make sure you get home all right.”

It was a woman’s voice. To John it was a sudden shock to hear something so melodious in the middle of the rainstorm. The two men turned around.

“Oh, hey John, I forgot to introduce the third member of our miserable company. This is Nancy.”

John felt his stomach jump and his pulse race as he looked down at Nancy. She turned from Mabel and a shower of watery gems fell from her hair. Her hand was warm and strong as she shook his and stabbed him with her eyes.

All he could do was mumble a greeting. Caught completely off guard, John hadn’t felt like this since he was a teenager.

“So you’re going to drive Chuck?” Nancy asked. “Good, at least someone can have a warm evening.”

Chuck turned to John, “Now listen….” But John cut him off. He had made a quick decision.

John said, “Walk with me to my car,” and shook off Chuck’s objection.

The MGB had a tiny boot in the back. John unlocked it and opened the cargo door. Then he handed his keys to Chuck.

“Here, you take my keys,” he said. “Take my car.”

“What? Why?”

“I want you to drive Mabel home, make sure she’s all right and warmed up, get her something to eat, then you go home with my car. We’ll sort it out later.”

“But… what about…”

“I’ll wait here for the bus. In your place. The route goes by my condo…. Eventually…. I think.”

“I can’t…”

John cut him off again. “Of course you can. This is what I want. Trust me.”

He looked down into the boot of the car. He kept a warm wool stadium blanket down there, for emergencies. He pulled it out and nodded to Chuck, who seemed to suddenly understand. The two walked back across the road.

“Mabel, John’s giving me his car, I can take you home,” Chuck said.

The old woman could barely reply as the two men helped her up and across the street. She felt like she was made of paper as they folded her in the passenger seat. John felt suddenly warmer as he watched the tiny car move away.

He walked back to the bench with his stadium blanket and was very happy to see Nancy smiling at him as he approached.

“Well, it looks like it’s the two of us waiting now. Do you want to share my blanket? It’s warm and dry,” he said.

Short Story (Flash Fiction) Of the Day, The Last Parade by Steve Prusky

It all ended at midnight, Fat Tuesday. Avoiding goodbyes, the sulking couple wandered, heads bowed, on a side street toward Canal, as if searching the ancient pavers on the Quarter’s cobbled road for advice on what parting words to say.

—-Steve Prusky, The Last Parade

Lee now, in New Orleans

New Orleans – Mardi Gras, Krewe of Zulu parade.

There are millions of Mardi Gras stories from New Orleans – a lot are the same.

Read it here:

The Last Parade by Steve Prusky

from The Flash Fiction Offensive

 

A Love Episode

“It was always the same; other people gave up loving before she did. They got spoilt, or else they went away; in any case, they were partly to blame. Why did it happen so? She herself never changed; when she loved anyone, it was for life. She could not understand desertion; it was something so huge, so monstrous that the notion of it made her little heart break.”
Émile Zola, Une Page d’amour

A Love Episode, Emile Zola

 

I am now a good chunk into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up was A Love Episode.

At this point I have finished the last of the books from the Mouret section of the Rougon Macquat books. The Rougon section dwelt mostly on the upper classes, especially on the mad ruthless speculation in L’Argent. Then came the Mouret branch of the family – middle class workers fighting to get ahead – and not always succeeding.  Now, after A Love Episode I will move into the Macquat  books – where poverty, drunkeness, and madness await. I’ve read four of these already – will have to decide whether to re-read them or not.

One characteristic of the last few books has been elaborate, extensive, florid, and detailed description. In A Love Episode this mostly consists of pages of description of the appearance of Paris out of the window of the protagonists suburban apartment. The changes in weather and light over the magnificent city reflect the inner turmoil that the main characters are experiencing.

It’s a short book, the easiest so far to read, that details… as the title suggests, a romance. The love story is between a beautiful young widow and the doctor that lives next door. He comes to her aid when her daughter falls ill. This is Paris, so the fact he is married is not an immovable obstacle, even though she is of sound moral character. The daughter, however, is sickly and very jealous, which leads to complications and, this being a Zola novel, an ultimate disaster.

A quick, fun, read… with a nice bunch of interesting characters – folks like those that you will still meet today.

If you look hard enough

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 22 – The Nightingale and the Rose

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for 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.

Today’s story, for day Twenty Two – The Nightingale and the Rose, by Oscar Wilde

Read it online here:

The Nightingale and the Rose

There is no wittier writer in the history of the world than Oscar Wilde. I remember reading The Portrait of Dorian Gray as a kid and staring in wonder across the pages at the pithy quotes and aphorisms sprinkled throughout the text. These nuggets of wisdom and bile were a second story concealed within the main book – I had a feeling that Wilde was pouring his real beliefs and feelings into these witticisms as much as into the events of the main text.

The novel feels like it was written by compiling a long, long list of witty barbs – and only then constructing a story as a framework or trellis to display them on.

  • there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about
  • But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins.
  • You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.
  • Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know.
  • As for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.
  • Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.
  • I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.
  • genius lasts longer than beauty.
  • The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.
  • The bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself.
  • It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.
  • I always like to know everything about my new friends, and nothing about my old ones.
  • Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.
  • He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.
  • I never talk during music–at least, during good music. If one hears bad music, it is one’s duty to drown it in conversation.
  • Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
  • Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.
  • She was free in her prison of passion.
  • Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
  • To be in love is to surpass one’s self.
  • Women … inspire us with the desire to do masterpieces, and always prevent us from carrying them out.
  • There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating — people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.
  • There is always something ridiculous about the emotions of people whom one has ceased to love.
  • We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.
  • One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing.
  • It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.
  • Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.
  • Each of us has heaven and hell in him.
  • I love scandals about other people, but scandals about myself don’t interest me. They have not got the charm of novelty.
  • Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even.
  • Each of us has heaven and hell in him.
  • Nobody ever commits a crime without doing something stupid.
  • The husbands of very beautiful women belong to the criminal classes.
  • It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.
  • Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them, they will forgive us everything, even our intellects.
  • A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her.
  • I like men who have a future and woman who have a past.
  • Moderation is a fatal thing. Enough is as bad as a meal. More than enough is as good as a feast.
  • I admit that I think that it is better to be beautiful than to be good. But on the other hand, no one is more ready than I am to acknowledge that it is better to be good than to be ugly.
  • Scepticism is the beginning of faith.
  • The only horrible thing in the world is ennui,
  • To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.
  • The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.

Over the years I have become a big fan of quotations. Oscar Wilde is the never ending fount of the pithy quote. For that, if nothing else, I am grateful.

Today’s story is very short and simple tale – not enough room for any extraneous worlds of wisdom. Alas.

But it starts out as a romantic fairy tale and appears to be so until you reach the final, dying words. Never fear, though – Wilde’s bitter cynicism will not be denied.

“No red rose in all my garden!” he cried, and his beautiful eyes filled with tears. “Ah, on what little things does happiness depend! I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched.”

204

He had met her through a mutual friend that thought they would be good for each other. On their first date, he had taken her to Olivier’s and it felt like they had known each other all their lives. They ate Creole Rabbit and Crawfish Étouffée.

She left him on a gray and drizzling day. He still goes to Olivier’s and watches for her, though he knows she won’t come walking in.

204

Sunday Snippet – Punch Card (How I Met Your Grandmother)

I had a writing teacher once that said that ideas were swimming through the air all around us and if you didn’t catch one as it went by, someone else would.

This morning, I caught an idea for a short story and wrote down an outline before I went out for a bicycle ride. There are four scenes, spread out over, say, forty years. The working title for the story is Punch Card (How I Met Your Grandmother).

Here’s the second scene, which takes place in the past (maybe 1975 or so). I’ll write the other three scenes over the next few days – hopefully to take to my writing group. If you want a copy of the first draft when I finish it, send me an email at bill*chance99@gmail.com – except put a period where the asterisk is and the number 57 where the 99 is (take that spammers).

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 was ever allowed to go or even see in there. The other half was filled with a filthy snack bar, lined with rusty autobots 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 these beige cards – rectangular with one corner cut off. 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. I was always a terrible typist and would get nervous, freeze up and hit the wrong letter.

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, magic, a corresponding hole would appear in the card itself.

With the punchcard machine a mistake was a disaster. I never could see that I’d missed a key. 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. You never could even see what was on the other side.

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 in and 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. 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. I figured out that the little holes corresponded to letters, numbers, or symbols and I punched out a card with everything on it, in order, and I would have to slide the thing slowly over every card I had punched to try and find the mistake.

It was horrible. I would be so tired, my eyes swimming, sitting at that huge punch machine, trying to type. I’d make a mistake and throw the card onto the overflowing trash bins and start again. 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 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.

Like it was yesterday, 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.

La Desperada

A few weeks ago I read a book that I ordinarily would not have read. This isn’t surprising, I’m not the target audience for this genre of fiction. I volunteered to read and review the new book by the teacher of a fiction class I took a few years ago, Patricia (Pooks) Burroughs. It’s a historical romance novel called La Desperada.

I didn’t want to put this up until the book was available – you can buy the ebook here. Go ahead, get it… you know you want to. I guarantee that this is the sort of thing you will like if you like this sort of thing.

This is the second romance novel I’ve read. The first was a random thin paperback Harlequin I picked up maybe thirty years ago and read out of sheer curiosity. Don’t ask the title, it’s long lost in my memory, along with the plot, characters, theme… or anything at all about the book except my visceral reaction to it. I remember that I read it in a couple of hours, although I’m not a particularly fast reader. I was able to crank through it so quickly because, First – I had the feeling I knew what the next sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter, all of it – was going to be. And I was always right. Second, I could read it fast because there was nothing there.

I did not become a fan of the genre after that first taste.

So now I am faced with La Desperada and writing a review of a book in a genre that I simply don’t read. Luckily, La Desperada is a much, much better book that that old Harlequin. It is a Romance, but there is much more going on between the pages, and it is written with a lot more ambition, excitement, and skill.

I went to school in Lawrence, Kansas. On days when the weather was nice, I used to walk from my dorm across Iowa Street into an ancient cemetery for a nice quiet place to sit outside and study. Sometimes I would even lean against an old tombstone with a textbook in my lap. Over time, I read most of the stones – they were all victims of Quantrill’s raid – where in a prelude to the civil war a band of Missouri based outlaws came across and burned Lawrence, slaughtering a good many of the residents.

I’m familiar with the history and passion of those days of violence and banditry and was glad to read that the prologue of La Desperada was set in Clay County, Missouri and that the heart of the conflict was born from the evil that spread across the land in those days.

Then the real story begins in West Texas – the town of Cavendish in 1881. Civilization had a tenuous hold on that wild land. There was still a place for men like Clayton Dougherty – men representing the law though they were at best barely on the right side of it – and too often, on the wrong. The uneasy, unstable, and ultimately cataclysmic triangle of Clayton, his intelligent and virtuous but scarred brother Joel, and Joel’s wife Elizabeth is thrown into violence and death when an outlaw, Boone Coulter shows up.

Once the story gets going, Boone and Elizabeth are on the run together, trying to escape their doom fleeing through the rugged desert and mountains of far West Texas and the untamed frontier towns of New Mexico.

I’ve driven North from Van Horn, Texas, along the valley east of the Sierra Diablo and felt the silent menace of those ragged cliffs and heat blasted salt flats. It looks wild and dangerous, and is so, even from a minivan. I’ve hiked up McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains (which must be the location of Boone’s hidden cabin hideout) and seen the magical beauty that a little water and shade can create in the high desert. My favorite aspect of La Desperada is the effort, imagination, and attention to detail that Patricia injects into the romance to pay homage to the setting and the landscape. West Texas, for good and bad, becomes another character in the story, and that is a very good thing.

That is the skill and effort that elevates the story above the run-of-the-mill romance. There is a real story here, real danger, real complexity. The romantic storyline is intact and moves as expected, but beyond that there is plenty of meat to sink your teeth into.

My only complaint with the book was the sex scenes. They arrive periodically and predictably and I found myself simply skipping these sections. This is not due to any prudishness on my part – I’m up for a little titillation without any qualms. I simply found the sex scenes in La Desperada clichéd and, I’m afraid, simply unexciting. I don’t know if that is a requirement of the genre (Bodice Ripping in the Old West) or not. At any rate, jumping over a page now and then didn’t damage the story at all – so it was all good.

When you are writing about someone else’s work, it is usually a bad idea to opine about what you would like to see done differently. You should write about what the book is, not what it is not. In this case, however, I want to give my opinion; I can’t resist. There is a secondary character that works to move the story forward – he has a doomed relationship with the the outlaw’s sister – his name is Miguél Obregón. I found this flawed, dangerous, evil, yet honorable in his own way character to be the most interesting thing in the book. I would love to read a book written about the love story between him and the sister from his point of view.

That would be something.

Links:

Sample Chapter

Review from Book Babe

Review from Journey of a Bookseller

Fresh Fiction