Short Story Of the Day, Whump Whump Whump by Bill Chance

The station was a squat peninsula in a vast sea of corn on the south side of the highway. The tall, green, thick stalks blocked any breeze that might have been able to stir.  Russ was bent over, trying to carefully meter out exactly five dollars’ worth of fuel, “click, whoosh, click, whoosh” but he still gazed across the highway where hay fields stretched to the horizon.

—-Bill Chance, Whump Whump Whump

Decatur, 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 (#20). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 

 


Whump Whump Whump

It was hot, even for July in the plains, and Russ Hathoway felt like he took a physical blow every time he left or entered the little cinder block building to tend to the pumps. It was as much of a shock to enter the cold of the inside, with the humming window units spaced around the back wall, as it was to battle with the searing sun. He was pumping gas all summer to make enough money to pay for his tuition. He was working toward a math degree at the state university. He didn’t know how he would ever make it – not only money-wise, but the other kids, mostly from countries he had never heard of, were so, so much smarter than he was.

And now he was stuck working at this gas station in the middle of nowhere. The customers liked him though, and the owner noticed the place made more money when Russ was manning the pumps. So the owner and his whole family piled in the station wagon and took off for the whole month, leaving the place for Russ alone. That was fine, more hours, more money. And in the slow times Russ could pull his textbook out and jot calculations on the chalkboard behind the counter – get a head start on the fall semester. In that summer of ’77 gas had jumped to sixty-two and nine/tenths cents per gallon and the customers always complained about it – like Russ had any influence on oil prices.

The station was a squat peninsula in a vast sea of corn on the south side of the highway. The tall, green, thick stalks blocked any breeze that might have been able to stir.  Russ was bent over, trying to carefully meter out exactly five dollars’ worth of fuel, “click, whoosh, click, whoosh” but he still gazed across the highway where hay fields stretched to the horizon. Today a “Green Monster” – a giant spindly machine armed with a crew of young men Russ’ age moved around the field scooping up rectangular bales with a probing conveyor belt until the crew grabbed and stacked the compressed fodder into a growing cube – like giant green fuzzy sugar cubes.

He knew some of the boys working on the Monster – they were bronzed and shirtless, which looked pretty fun to Russ, struggling in his oil-stained uniform and Standard Oil cap. His distraction caused him to give one click to many and the total jumped to $5.10.

“Shit,” Russ muttered. He didn’t mind giving the customer and extra dime of fuel, but he knew the station owner carefully checked the amounts stored inside the pumps against what the cash register said he sold and if there was a significant difference, he would chew Russ out and dock his salary.

One morning, business was slow – almost no cars disturbed the heat wave ripples rising from the asphalt highway. Russ was sitting on the little plastic chair with his textbook spread open. He would scratch his head, scribble in a spiral notebook, or squiggle on the chalkboard. To his left was the giant cash register with its brass keys, deep polished wood, and stark cash signs sticking up above. He remembered how difficult the register was to operate when he first started, pushing the keys and pulling the heavy lever to register the sale and open the cash box.

Now he could work the thing without even looking at it. He enjoyed the rhythm, effort, and most of all, the sound of the mechanism as it did its work. He would make up little poems to go along with the cadence of the operation, “Thank You HapPy People,” he would mutter to himself.

To his right was the calculator. It was used to add up charges and discounts to the gas station’s commercial accounts – diesel semis or fleets of delivery trucks. The owner had worked out special rates and prices with these companies and the calculator was needed to figure out the charges. The owner and his kids struggled with this, but for Russ it was second nature.

This big box of numbers fascinated him. It was an Olivetti Divisumma 24, made in Italy with exquisite craftsmanship. Every two months a technician stopped by and removed the case, exposing an impossibly complex three dimensional jungle of wheels, gears, and levers. He would adjust and lubricate the delicate mechanism while Russ stared over his shoulder.

Russ had a strong innate curiosity and he couldn’t help but try to figure out how it worked. It had an electric motor inside that set all the gears turning, but all the logic, all the intelligence of the thing was mechanical – set inside that metal brain of tiny interlocking parts.

It would add by moving gears and printing out the result on a little strip of paper (the technician always replaced the ribbon). Multiplication was simply addition done over and over. Russ would multiply two numbers and listen to the repeated whump whump whump of the mechanism as it moved around, adding over and over again. Subtraction, again, was simple. It was only addition in reverse.

What Russ found really fascinating was that the machine could divide. It took him a while to figure that one out. It divided by adding. The smaller number, the divisor, would simply be added up over and over until it was just less than the dividend, the large number. The calculator would then print this whole number out, along with a remainder.

Russ couldn’t help but try this out. He was amazed by this simple bit of arithmetic. He would try it with evenly divided numbers and then with operations that left a remainder. He guessed this crude arithmetic was fine for financial calculations – “how many gallons can someone buy?”, for example, and “how much change was left?”.

That morning, though, a question occurred to him. What would happen if he entered a formula where the machine had to divide by zero? It would try and add that zero over and over again, but it would never increase. Russ shook his head and casually reached over, entering 7 divided by zero, and pushed the equal sign.

Whump, Whump, Whump, Whump,” the machine started in. That made sense, it was trying to add that zero up. An hour later, though, it was still going “Whump, Whump, Whump,” and Russ was starting to get worried. He pulled on all the levers and pushed all the buttons but nothing changed. “Whump, Whump, Whump.”

After staring at it and thinking a bit, Russ unplugged the machine. The noise stopped. Relieved, he plugged it back in, but it started in, “Whump, Whump, Whump.” Russ let it run all day.

“Oh, Shit! man, I’m in big trouble now,” Russ said out loud.

The old man told him that it cost seven hundred and fifty dollars. And now he had broken it. The owner will be docking Russ’ pay ‘til the cows come home.

Seven hundred fifty. At three bucks and hour, less taxes…. That was almost two semesters of tuition.

Whump, Whump, Whump.”

It would be two weeks before the owner came back. Russ left a notebook by the machine and did all the calculations by hand, but that would only get him by until the owner saw what he had done. All day the sound haunted him. Sometimes he would unplug it for relief from the noise, but he always let it run all night.

He would come in the morning to open up, hoping it had stopped in the night, but was always greeted by that infernal sound.

Whump, Whump, Whump,” the calculator droned on in the background.

Days moved into weeks and Russ began to worry more and more. He had no idea what he would do when the owner returned.

He thought of lying to the owner, saying it, “Just started up by itself.” That didn’t sound like it would work.

Then, miracles of miracles. Two days before the owner’s return, Russ was sitting there listening to the sound. He was used to it, it was the background to his day. He was even used to the anxiety that it produced. That worry too had faded into the background, even though it was always there. Russ knew he would have to live with that too, which was worse.

Suddenly, a second of silence. That silence, the lack of “Whump, Whump, Whump,” was the loudest thing Russ had ever heard. It was followed by a strident clattering as the machine began to print out on its paper tape.

Russ stared as it printed. Line after line of numbers. They looked random, but there it was, a long number that stretched almost to ninety digits. Finally, it stopped and the machine sat there silent and still, waiting for its next task.

Russ pulled out the tape and looked at it. Thinking, he figured the gears must have slipped a little bit with each Whump – and finally, after weeks, they slipped enough to add up to seven.

To this day, forty-four years later, on the wall of his office in the bowels of the University Mathematics Department, next to his PhD diploma, hangs an oddly shaped frame containing a long strip of aged yellowing paper. On that paper is a single, long number.

When asked, Professor Hathoway, Chairman of the math department, likes to answer with a wry smile, “That number is the answer to seven divided by zero.”

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 30 – SCHOOL by Melissa Goodrich

Sundance Square, Fort Worth, 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 30 – SCHOOL by Melissa Goodrich
Read it online here:
SCHOOL by Melissa Goodrich

They eat spicy Cheetos and Ramen noodles, have the kind of beautiful faces that crack rearview mirrors.
—-Melissa Goodrich, SCHOOL

We were talking today, like we often do, about Game of Thrones, gratuitous nudity, and little person sex. I said, as I often do, “The problem with the world that Game of Thrones is set in, is that everybody’s life is miserable. From the most destitue peasant to the kings of the world, nobody is happy and life is so difficult and, despite the gratuitous nudity and little person sex, so joyless… If I lived there, I’d just kill myself, and anyone else would too.”

Someone else said, as they often do, “It’s like the life we live today.”

I replied, “No, we don’t live in miserable times… we live in the crazy times.”

Interview with Melissa Goodrich:

Is writing more of a blessing or a curse?
God. Both. I usually think I’m not writing enough. I’m haunted by those people who write every day, and run ten miles, and read new books and journals, and eat organically nurtured produce…I’m still a cereal-eater, a sleeper-inner, a person who writes slowly and then binge-watches TV.

But the blessing is I trust my voice now. And I trust that writing should be joyous and surprising, and that none of it is wasteful.
—-from Cultured Vultures

Kyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas

A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day Twenty Three – Expelled

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. 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 three – Expelled, by John Cheever

Read it online here:

Expelled

John Cheever is, of course, one of the Titans of short story writing and chronicler of the American Condition. He’s often called “the Chekhov of the suburbs.” His eponymous collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize.

I know him best for his most-anthologized story The Swimmer. I read it in college in my short story class (we read a hundred stories in a semester) and it affected me enough to remember sitting in my dorm room reading it after all these years.

Today’s story is Cheever’s first published story, Expelled. It’s the thinly-disguised tale of his own experiences being shitcanned from a prestigious prep school – The Thayer Academy. In real life he left, was invited back on probation after winning a short story contest, then flunked out again.

Expelled reminds me of other works that mark a young (usually idealistic) person’s realization that the world isn’t going to be able to stand up to their expectations – and that will make for a difficult life. The Catcher in the Rye is probably the most iconic tale of the type. My favorite is A&P, by John Updike – a seductively simple yet subtly horrific story.

Today’s story has an interesting structure – a series of vignettes each featuring a character involved in the expulsion. That helps keep the thing from becoming too self-indulgent, and makes the school and its denizens more likable and less blameful. It’s a story written by a young person – not quite fully developed – but you can read the potential here.

And now it is August. The orchards are stinking ripe. The tea-colored brooks run beneath the rocks. There is sediment on the stone and no wind in the willows. Everyone is preparing to go back to school. I have no school to go back to.

I am not sorry. I am not at all glad.

It is strange to be so very young and to have no place to report to at nine o’clock. That is what education has always been. It has been laced curtseys and perfumed punctualities.

But now it is nothing. It is symmetric with my life. I am lost in it. That is why I am not standing in a place where I can talk

Old School

Renner School House, Dallas Heritage Village

I was wandering around, looking into the historic buildings that have been moved from all over North Texas into Old City Park, now Dallas Heritage Village. Some kid walked into the Renner School House at the same time I did.

“Can you imagine going to school in a room like this?” I asked.

“I’ve been here before, I think. I think it was a field trip,” he answered.

“Look at how each chair holds the desk for the person behind them. Oh, do you know what the little holes are for?”

“For the inks!” he said.

“It’s a shame we can’t go upstairs or play in the playground,” the kid said. “Do you know what all these cans hanging on the wall are for?”

I said, “Those are what the kids brought their lunch to school in. See, they are little metal buckets. They called them lunch pails.”

I kept running into the kid as I walked around the place and he would leave his family, walk up to me and point out something. In the historic barnyard he was looking around, trying to find the rooster that was crowing.

“I think it’s a recording,” I said. “They are playing that sound over and over.”

“It sure sounds real,” he said.

The historic Renner School House, in Dallas Heritage Village, with the skyscrapers of downtown rearing up in the background.

Lunch pails hung on the wall pegs at the Renner School House.

Daily Reader.

Renner School House desks.

All the Information in the World

In my surfing a few days ago I came across, as I’m sure you did, the news that after 244 years Encyclopedia Britannica was giving up on its print edition.

We never had Britannica in our house – it was too expensive. We had a cheaper, more “modern” looking set… I don’t remember the brand. Of course, my schools – every school (I went to… I think twelve different ones)  library had a set of Britannicas. I wasn’t a big fan of them; they seemed too stuffy for my taste. I loved the top-line World Book (which looks like it is still in print) – I remember when I discovered the transparent acetate pages that showed the human anatomy in several layers. It seemed like amazing information luxury to me.

Most kids used the various encyclopedias to plagiarize their school reports, usually cribbing the short paragraphs out verbatim.  I, on the other hand, used to read encyclopedias cover to cover, from AA, through Z, and on to devour each annual update and addendum. I loved reading them. I’d read my books at home, then I devour the ones in the school library, then on to the history sets (I loved these because they were in chronological order) and finally the long shelves of Time/Life educational books.

Sitting here, writing this, I remember the hours spent turning the pages, the slight fungus odor of the old paper, the weight of the editions as they came off the shelf, the nasty paper cuts – I remember following the footnotes and then the memory of getting to the same article in alphabetical order. I retained a surprisingly large amount of information – not sure how much good it did me. The tomes were good on dry facts but not so much on wisdom.

I am not overwhelmed with wistful nostalgic sadness, though. Plenty of people are full of woe that an age has passed and they lament the disappearance of such a totem of their youth. My thoughts run in a different direction. What I think about is what a kid that, in a vain attempt to satisfy his unquenchable curiosity, was forced to read encyclopedias cover to cover, volume to volume, could have done if he had been born a few decades later and had access to the internet. It would have been like drinking from a fire hydrant.

I’ve been seeing headlines like, “Encyclopedia Britannica killed by Wikipedia!” That is not true at all – Wikipedia is a great thing, but sometimes you want information that wasn’t written by nineteen-year-olds. There will always be a place for the verified truth.

“This has nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google,” Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. President Jorge Cauz said. “This has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells its digital products to a large number of people.”

The top year for the printed encyclopedia was 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold, Cauz said. That number fell to 40,000 just six years later in 1996, he said. The company started exploring digital publishing in the 1970s. The first CD-ROM edition was published in 1989 and a version went online in 1994.

The final hardcover encyclopedia set weighs 129 pounds and is available for sale at Britannica’s website for $1,395.

An entire set costs more than an iPad. A low-end tablet is half that.  There is an iOS app which is free, but has a $1.99 a month subscription for unlimited content.

If you went back in time to, say 1969, and said, “Hey, for half the cost of that shelf full of heavy books, I’m going to give you a little book or pad, about the size of a magazine, that you can take anywhere with you and when you touch it, the content you are looking for will appear on it, more or less instantly. It will be in full color, with sound and full-motion television, when appropriate. You’ll have to throw the old, paper ones away, though. To keep it updated you’ll have to pay two dollars a month. Oh, and if you need a break you can play Angry Birds on it too.”

What do you think the reaction would have been? It makes me think of Arthur C Clarke’s third law- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A fully loaded iPad would have looked like magic in 1969. And that’s 1969! I remember 1969. I was twelve. I was reading encyclopedias in 1969.

I wish I had had an iPad.

This is me in 1969 (or so). I look like a kid that read encyclopedias cover to cover.

#Britannica

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