Friday, October 31, 2014

Binary Code by Jim Bartlett

When Seymour Dunston rescues his old-school adding machine, the network conspires to reward him; by Jim Bartlett.

"Are you still using that confounded adding machine?"

Seymour Dunston glances up from his work coming nose to nose with his manager, Morris Fretterhorn, a younger fresh-face racing up the fast track of the executive ranks of Myes, Zerr, and Lee, a highly respected and long standing accounting firm in San Francisco. As he studies that angry look, his vision fills - just for just the briefest of moments - with the scene from the old Warner Brother cartoons where Daffy Duck or Elmer Fudd become so infuriated that their face turns beet-red, steam jetting from their ears to the sound of a train whistle. And his mouth flirts with a smile.

"Have there been complaints about my calculations? Audits on my returns?" His retort only seems to work the young man into more of a frenzy.

"Mr. Dunston, you don't seem to fathom what it is we're after here." He points an accusing finger. "You see... it's not the accuracy or the quality that I question." Fretterhorn puts his hands on his hips and begins an agitated pace along the side of his desk. The room takes on a deadly quiet, all eyes intent on the skinny manager.

"Data. Such invaluable, marvelous data," he continues with his spiel. "We can see trends and patterns, establish databases, set indices, look for connections... maybe even predict customer behaviors. But... to get any of that... we NEED our associates to USE the gosh darn computers! After all, my good man, they are all linked together. A huge, cooperative network. Helping each other to get the job complete! We no longer stand on our own, Dunston. It takes a network to get this job done right!"

"But..."

"No BUTs, Mr. Dunston. You do know HOW to use the computer and our accounting program, don't you?"

With a long whistling sigh, Seymour looks first at his beloved Marchant 416-S calculating machine, with slightly worn keys and a growing mountain of paper tumbling out of the top, before turning toward the shiny unused Dell, its flat screen monitor beckoning him to leave the past and march into the future.

"Yes. Yes, I most certainly know how to use your computer."

"Well then... get to it!"

Fretterhorn spins on one heel and stomps off in the direction of his office. The slam of his door elicits a few short giggles, followed immediately by the chorus of clicking computer keys.

Seymour slides over to face the inviting Dell. He really doesn't have anything against the machine, after all it seems pleasant enough and the keyboard has a nice touch. But, his little calculator has never let him down, and he feels it's earned his loyalty.

Maybe he can do his initial calculation on the computer... and just double check on the Marchant. That might be compromise enough!

He reaches over to slide the bulky adding machine closer to his work area. But, before he can so much as lay a finger on it, two hands appear and yank the antique from his desk.

"AH-HAAA!" shouts Fretterhorn. "I knew I couldn't trust you!"

With those words he tugs the cord from the outlet and drops the heavy machine smack into the trash can, a loud thud making note of its arrival.

Seymour starts to reach for his faithful machine, but thinks the better of it and rather, somewhat submissively, slides over to the Dell and begins to enter his data.

Mission accomplished, and without a further word, Fretterhorn once again spins on a heel and marches back to his office, sans the giggles of the previous trip.

The remainder of the day drudges by incredibly slow for Seymour, particularly with the distraction of one eye now and again slyly stealing a glance down at his steady friend.

When everyone finally files out he stays a bit longer and cautiously slips a glance at the now dark office of Mr. Fretterhorn. His absence established, he shuts down the computer and leans over to pick out the Marchant from its tomb.

As he does, a line of light streaks in the corner of his eye, seemingly coming from the Dell's darkening screen. Cradling his beloved calculating machine, he quickly turns, catching the blinking cursor just as it fades to black.

Yet something seems strange. Rather than resting in the upper corner, the cursor's last blink was on his side of the screen, as if watching him retrieve the Marchant.

He shakes his head - must be imagining things - yet, when he stands, he notices flickering from the previously dark screens across the aisle, almost as if they, too, were observing, and now wink in knowing unison.

Some network!

He again shakes it off, quickly scooting out the door and down to the bus stop. He's late. But his luck holds and he arrives at the stop just as #25 rolls up. He slides in his transfer card and waits, but rather than the usual click of acknowledgement, there's an odd bleep noise.

"Looks like you're already paid," says the driver.

"Huh?"

"The system has you covered. One of those monthly things. Look, buddy, you're holding up the line. Take a seat."

Befuddled, Seymour hurries to a vacant seat. He sits, his eyes glued to the transfer card trying to make some sense of how it registered.

His trance is broken, however, when it occurs to him that his cupboards at home, much like Mother Hubbard's, are bare. He hops off the bus a stop early as the Safeway is only a block or so down the street.

Along the way he drops by his ATM, for his wallet only holds a lonely five-dollar bill. He slides in his card, but before he can enter his PIN, the screen's cursor does a funny little wink and the ATM begins to play a cheerful tune with its high pitched beeps. Then, like a water hose gone wild, twenty-dollar bills begin spraying out, one after the other.

It takes him a moment to recover. But when he does, he begins frantically grabbing at the errant Jacksons with one hand, while the other flails at the dispenser in a wild attempt to try and stem the flow. Finally, after what seems an eternity to the slight little man, the belching of bills comes to a halt, just as promptly and oddly as it had begun.

As best he can, he wrestles the mass of cash into his arms and makes his way into the bank. The bank's president, both in awe and delighted at Seymour's honesty, thanks him profusely while several of the tellers stand and applaud.

Leaving that fiasco behind, Seymour continues on to the Safeway, picking up just a few needs for the night's dinner. He places his selections on the belt for the cashier somewhat mindlessly, his thoughts still mired in the day at work, never mind the events at the bank. The checker scans each item with a "beep," places them in a paper bag, and hands him the receipt along with another slip of paper.

"Thanks, Mr. Dunston. You saved $1.58 with your club card, and here's your lottery ticket."

"I'm sorry?"

"Your lottery ticket... and the receipt..."

"But..." Seymour says, his voice in a raised pitch. "I haven't paid yet. And I never play the lottery."

"Well, pal, says right here on my terminal 'PAID IN FULL' and one Quick Pick Lottery ticket, you want it or not?" The checker chomps her gum as she holds out the ticket, "I don't freakin' care" written across her face.

"Okay," he says as he takes the ticket, receipt, and bag of groceries. He drifts more than walks out the exit, more bewildered than ever.

Just outside the door, a nicely dressed, attractive middle-aged woman approaches him. However, the expression she wears on her face does not complete the ensemble, as it's filled with sadness and hardship.

"I'm ever so sorry to trouble you kind sir, but my brother has been ill and his insurance has run out. I've used the last of my resources, even put my house up for sale, and now resort to asking strangers for help,"

Seymour, though trying to avoid eye contact, can't help but notice a single tear sliding down her cheek.

"Could you spare some change, please?" Her outstretched hand shakes and her voice quivers.

The sight takes his breath, and he sets down the bag of groceries to pull out his wallet, his heart dropping as the single five comes into view. He should have never left the bank empty-handed.

Nothing to be done about it now. This is the best he can do. And with that, he passes it along to the sweet woman, her troubles ever greater than his.

"Oh, thank you ever so much. I'm so embarrassed to have things come to this, but they just can't seem to find out what's wrong with him," she blushes and starts to turn away.

Then it strikes him. "Wait. Here, take this." Seymour hands her the Quick Pick ticket. "I never play... and you never know."

"Why... thank you."

For the first time their eyes meet, hers sparkling with the twinkle of a constellation of stars. A constellation of hope.

"My name is Clara. Clara Middlestein. Say, is that an old Marchant you've got tucked under your arm?"

"Pleased to me you Clara." He shifts the weight of the calculator and extends his hand. "I'm Seymour Dunston. And why, yes, this is a Marchant. How did you know?"

"I was in the business until this mess. I'll be back soon enough, though. You just wait and see." She flashes him a wink and a smile, and then walks away, leaving Seymour feeling warm inside.

The next weeks are filled with daily surprises. In the lunch room at work the soda machine pops out his favorite soft drink upon his approach. Each afternoon, as he arrives home, the television snaps to life, already tuned to his favorite show - even if it didn't happen to be scheduled for that hour. On one particular evening, he makes up his mind to go to the theater, only to find a will-call ticket waiting with his name. Utility bills arrive in the mail - PAID IN FULL. The bus ticket always beeps, not clicks, and, of course, he has to purposely plan his walks such that he won't pass by ATM machines, for fear of being besieged with a squadron of flying twenty-dollar bills.

Then, one morning, after a couple months had passed and he was beginning to adjust to this new, but weird routine, he steps through the door into the main office to find everyone gathered at the front bulletin board.

"What's going on?" he asks. Several turn at the sound of his voice, most wearing smiles, but, yet, there also seems to be a jittery edge in the air.

"The company has been sold," says Martha, the lady who sits in the desk directly behind his. The smile on her face looks forced and her face is tight with worry.

"Yeah, but the good news is Fretterhorn's gone," says a slim man beside her.

He takes in the news, but it's as if there's a traffic jam in his brain and the words are late in arriving.

"Did he say Fretterhorn's gone?"

"Yes. The new owner's coming by today and will be providing everyone with lunch."

Seymour looks up, but misses who made the last announcement. Buy lunch? Seymour can't believe his ears. Over the thirty years of working at Myes, Zerr, and Lee, he remembers each and every time they cried when the toilet paper needed replacement... no way they'd buy lunch.

With the tick of the clock, everyone moves to their desks, the clatter of computer keys almost drowning out the whispers of concern over what might be happening to the company. And, more importantly... their jobs.

Lost in his own thoughts, Seymour practically jumps in his chair when the clock finally strikes twelve. But before he can rise from his seat, a parade of silver carts bursts through the door, each pushed by a young man or woman dressed in sharp whites with a tall white chef's hat. They march down the center aisle and straight into the lunchroom where the team sets up tables with linen napkins, china plates, and polished silverware. While the sight itself is quite the spectacle, the marvelous smell of the food is hypnotic.

Following behind the rest of the employees, almost as if lassoed in by the wisps of aromatic steam, Seymour moves into the cafeteria, seating himself in a chair close to the rear exit. Though bewildered, he enjoys the moment. Such a welcome change from days prior.

It's then a soft hand clutches his shoulder from behind causing him to turn to see the source of such a pleasant touch.

"Clara!"

"Yes, Seymour. How are you?"

"I'm... surprised. What on Earth brings you here?"

"I'm the new owner, Seymour. I told you I'd get back in the business."

"But... your brother... your house?"

Clara smiles. "The lottery ticket, Seymour. That marvelous little lottery ticket. It was a winner. A BIG winner. My brother is doing fine. He was released from the hospital just last week. And I'm sleeping in my own bed in my own little house. And it's all thanks to you, Seymour Dunston. You are a kind soul with a caring life-loving heart. And now I want to make sure that you get your fair share, too."

"That was your ticket, Clara. My gift to you." Seymour stands and Clara takes his hand. "Just hearing how it helped you... well that's more than my fair share."

"Tell you what," Clara says, her eyes twinkling. In fact, not unlike the first time Seymour met her. "Let's negotiate over dinner tonight."

11 comments:

  1. One on the nose for people who think that the digitally challenged know nothing of value about the world, and its dynamics. I found this story to be quite cinematic in its quality, and very engaging and gently funny. Sometimes its definitely reassuring to see the good guys triumph! A skilfully light touch enhances the humour that threads through bad times and the subsequent success of our main protagonist. Good luck to Seymour and Clara.......
    Congratulations,
    Ceinwen Haydon

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    1. Thanks so much for the read and wonderful comments, Ceinwen! I'll pass along your good wishes to Seymour and Clara ;-)

      Jim

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  2. Bartlett, as always, delivers. His wonderful turn of phrase and colorful descriptions enhance a storyline that needs no enhancing (icing on the cake). Its a feel-good tale that satisfies our desire to see compassion win out over the cold impersonalization of technology. Well Done, Jim.

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    1. You're kind, Carol! (We know about that cold personalization of technology all too well, eh?) Thanks for the read.

      Jim

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  3. Long time coming Jim, but you´ve proved your versatility here, feel good story of they don´t write them like that anymore variety, little man triumphs, excellent descriptions, particularly like 'lassoed in by the wisps of aromatic steam'
    Great

    Michael McCarthy

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    1. As always, I am humbled by your comments, Michael. Thanks ever so much!

      Jim

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    2. PS - the "lassoed in" line was a late add, and one of my favorites as well. Happy writing. (Looking forward to something from you, soon.)

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  4. Big strong visual images, well ordered and polished prose. You might also enjoy 'I say Papaya, You say Pawpaw' by Mike Scott Thompson (The Fiction Desk) which too is a celebration of the triumph of 'modest man'.
    Well, I'm going to visit the ATM now, on the off chance that it might be 'belching bills', or that I might bear witness to 'squadrons of flying notes'. A great read Jim!
    Brooke

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    1. I'm definitely going to give Mike's story a look-see! Thanks for the recommendation. And, more so, thanks for the read and the kind comments. The only thing that seems to be "belching bills" around me is the postman, and, most certainly, they're the wrong kind of bills ;-) Thanks again, Brooke.

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  5. I liked Seymour. Although he adds up things and calculates, he also knows the real "value" of life.

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  6. Thanks for the read and the comments, Ernesto. It really helps when readers provide insights into what they like (or don't like) about a story. P.S. - I like Seymour, too!

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