Archive | Penny Stories RSS feed for this section

The Astrophysicist and the Napkin

7 Sep

Found this story while going through old files on my computer. I wrote it back in 2012, and it still makes me happy. As this is a rare thing, I thought I’d share.

It began like any other day. I awoke in a fog, the remnants of an equation that promised to unify string theory, or at least solve our current propulsion problems, threatening to dart back into my unconscious. I dragged myself out of bed and into the shower. I spun the dial into the arctic zone, trying to shock my mind into clarity, but only succeeded in shocking my sympathetic nervous system into overdrive.
Shivering uncontrollably, I cut the shower short. It’s not like I had a job where my coworkers cared about my personal hygiene. Actually, considering how my coworkers were all mainframe computers, if they started caring about my personal hygiene, I’d have bigger problems than unwashed hair. Three unknown variables buzzed around my head, but I couldn’t get them to land in the proper order.

I’d already started the coffee maker and the toaster before I noticed anything odd. Those three variables had been joined by a host of integers, all taunting my mental ambiguity with their significance. I grabbed the grocery list off the fridge, intending to ink those little alphanumeric buggers into some sort of permanence, pulled a chair out, and realized said chair already had an occupant.

“Miss Grabau, is it?” the woman said, smiling calmly despite my recent attempt to unseat her.

“Uh, yes.” I said. I then noticed the other chair also had an occupant- a man in a red flannel shirt.

My toast popped up with its usual, and somewhat disturbing, clang. Despite the dark sunglasses they wore, I could tell the pair regarded my modified toaster with mild alarm.

“May I offer you some toast?” I asked.

“No, thank you. But you could offer us a tour of your marvelous lab.” The woman said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, turning to retrieve my breakfast before it burned.

“Oh, let’s not play games.” The woman said. “The university may have fired you last year, but you’re still in touch with Dr. Ellis, aren’t you?”

I calculated the probability that the woman was bluffing. It was possible, given that Derrick Ellis was widely regarded in the scientific community as being off his nut, but the hint of danger in her voice led me to err on the side of caution. I kept my mouth shut and pretended to fight the toaster for my precious last slice of bread.

“She’s not going to give it up.” I heard the man say. Even with my back turned, I could feel the heat of the glare he got in response.

“Fine, Miss Grabau. You show me mine, and I’ll show you yours.”

When someone says something like that, it is very difficult not to respond. “What?” I asked.

“You show me where you’ve hidden my computers, and I’ll give you this.” The woman held up a napkin. Scrawled on it was the equation that had been haunting me for weeks, in full and completely balanced.

“Huh. Would you look at that.” I said.

“Now,” said the woman. “About that tour.”

I shoved my now-burned breakfast into my mouth and placed my palm on the concealed switch behind the blender. The wall behind me slid away smoothly. I could hear the soft whirl and hum of my many mechanical coworkers far below.
The pair rose and peered into the darkness. Red flannel shirt man took a step down, his hand groping the wall in search of a light switch. The woman braced herself on the door jamb with her right hand. Her left hand held the napkin loosely, like it was a simple bar sketch rather than the key to my more than twenty years of research. If I reached out now, I could grab it.

So, that’s what I did. I grabbed the napkin, watched the woman spin around and take an involuntary step backward into the stairwell, and removed my hand from the pressure switch. The panel slid back into place silently, just as I had designed it to do.

I could hear the pair scuffling behind the wall. They’d probably find the light switch soon. Then they would walk down the spiral staircase, take in the majesty of my beautiful lab, and have exactly 42 seconds to appreciate what I’d done with their computers.

After all, the toaster wasn’t the only machine I’d modified.

Train Or Tornado

20 Feb

20140220-221541.jpgPhoto Credit

Have I told you all about the game I invented last year called “Train or Tornado?”

It’s a great game. Anyone with any sense of awareness can play, even pets. Here’s how it works:
Continue reading

‘Twas The Retail Night Before Christmas

22 Dec


(With apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the store,
All the creatures were stirring, searching for one present more.
The staff stockings were hung in the breakroom with care,
Stuffed with candy & such sugar-rush-inducing fare;
The staff were nestled in their nice collared shirts,
Dreaming of being home with family, eating desserts;
And the manager in his name tag, and I in my shoes,
Were bemoaning our luck & singing the “working Christmas Eve” blues.

When up at the front there arose such a clatter,
We all sprang from the cashwrap to see what was the matter.
Away to the display case we flew like a flash,
Armed with the alarm code: alphanumeric, with a dash.
The florescent on the breast of the new-broken glass,
Gave a lustre of lawsuits to all who would pass,
And what to our wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature boy, his face frozen in fear.

With the locking mechanism still clutched in his hand,
We knew in a moment that this boy had been left unmanned.
More rapid than eagles we shifted the blame,
And demanded and pleaded to find out his name:
“Are you Henry or Alex or Joseph or Chris?
Maxwell or Allen or Ezra or Fritz?”
Try as we might, the boy gave us no reply,
He just held his breath, still ready to cry;
So out to the main mall a junior staff member flew,
To find the boy’s parents before he turned blue.
And then, in a twinkling, we heard our coworker shout,
“Hey you in the suit, can you come help us out?”

My manager’s face showed relief, the boy’s father had been found,
When in between the anti-theft barriers, St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his feet,
And he looked bone tired, from hours on the hot seat.
A new video game system was clutched in his hand and he thus
Looked a bit shamed he hadn’t bought it from us.
His eyes caught sight of the still petrified kid,
And he signaled to us with a wink of his eyelid.

He knelt on the floor, right amidst all the rubble,
And he said in a kind voice, “what seems to be the trouble?”
The boy started to sob, it was really quite sad,
And he cried aloud, “Santa, I’ve really been bad.”
St. Nick’s face softened, his eyes held a bright spark,
And he said to the boy, “that’s true, my dear Mark.
You’ve been naughty indeed, and for most of the year,
But I’ll tell you this now, you have nothing to fear.’
With a wink of his eye and an offer of his hand,
Santa made it clear to the boy that he had this all planned;
He spoke no more words, but they went straight to their work,
And tidied the display better than any sales clerk.

And then laying his finger aside of his face,
Santa smiled at us all and departed the place.
It was only afterwards that a customer inquired,
“Didn’t the mall say no Santa had been hired?”
They were right- the mall employed neither Santa nor elf,
Was is possible we’d just encountered the real legend himself?
As we looked at each other with mixed wonder and appall,
We heard a jolly, “Happy Christmas to all, especially those at the mall!””

Some Thoughts On Books

6 Nov

Books are patient, books are kind. They do not envy, they do not boast, they are not proud. They are not rude, they are not self-seeking, they are not easily angered, they keep no record of wrongs. Books do not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth. Books always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere.

Nah, I’m just kidding. Books are horrible vengeful things that will steal your heart and imprison it forever within their pages. They judge you for not reading them, they compete to see who has the brightest colors on their bindings, and boy do they gloat when they’re pulled off a shelf instead of others. They sneer at lesser books, they shove new books off the shelf, they note our every touch and page turn, and so help you if you dogear that page. Books take great pleasure in reducing readers to quivering puddles of emotional distress. They won’t protect you from reality, won’t trust that you’ll save them from a fire, won’t hope that you’ll return to reread them, and as is the nature of the universe, won’t persevere throughout the years.

Really, books are the antithesis of love.

And I intend to love the evil right out of them until the day I die. (And probably for a few years after that, as a ghostly book guardian.)


A Brief Conversation

24 May

Calf muscles: Hey, I’m just going to do some sudden cramping. That’s cool, right?

Me: No, go back to sleep.

Heart rate: Sorry, I’m just going to speed up a bit because THERE’S A BEETLE ON YOUR FACE!

Me: ARGH! It’s gone. Can we go back to sleep now?

Toes: We’re already asleep.  Well, half of us are.  And just to mess with you, it’s every other toe that’s asleep. Enjoy figuring that one out.

Me: Sleep. Now.

Stomach: Oh, hey guys- is it time for breakfast? I’d like breakfast. Breakfast. Breakfast. Breakfast.

Me: nooooo….

Brain: Excellent, we have a quorum. Who would like to hear a story that I just made up?


And now you know why I am up at 6 am.

The Freight Train Engineer Horn Continuum

20 Mar

No, this isn’t the title of the new Big Bang Theory episode (although it would be an excellent Sheldon-centered episode title).  Rather, it’s the presentation of my newest personality scale.  Some of you may remember The Sidewalk Penny Personality Test from last February.  (Some of you have even contacted me to say that you’ve tried it.  I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that gluing the penny to the sidewalk, while funny, is also sadistic in these trying economic times.  You know who you are.)

This week, I’m unveiling a scale that will help determine the level of apathy in your neighborhood freight train engineer.  This scale comes from two and a half months of exhaustive research (literally, as I live 200 yards from a 24-hour active train track).  Somewhere in the second month, I made an interesting discovery.  There exists a wide range of train horn blowing behaviors, but along this continuum are five discreet spots.  The noises of all passing trains can be associated with one of these types, implying that train engineers are somewhat more predictable than I previously assumed (you know, from my previously vast stores of train-related knowledge).  Those who live near a train track will hopefully enjoy this new personality tool, while those who do not live near a train track will at least enjoy the knowledge that their ears are safer than mine.

Without further ado: The Freight Train Engineer Horn Continuum

  • The Early Warner– This an anxious sort of engineer.  He’ll hit the horn at every crossing, but he’ll also let you know that the train is approaching from 2 miles out, 1 mile out, ¾ mile out, ½ mile out, ¼ mile out, at each intersection, and then at the same intervals as the train is receding into the distance, just in case you were planning to jump out in front of the last few cars.  Most often heard during the pre-dawn hours, this engineer makes most residents of my complex want to hurl Prozac tablets at the tracks.
$500 internet dollars to the person who can tell me what movie this frame is from.  Also- trains don't whistle, but it might be cool if they did.

$500 internet dollars to the person who can tell me what movie this frame is from. Also- trains don’t whistle, but it might be cool if they did.

  • The Safety First– Related to the Early Warner, but with slightly higher levels of serotonin, this engineer is either new on the job or swallowed the rule book.  He blows the horn at every intersection at precisely the right interval for precisely the right number of seconds.  With four crossings within a half mile of my dwelling, this means four insistent blasts, plus the three or four extra blasts thrown in for good measure.  After all, better safe than sorry, and no one should really be sleeping past 8 am on a Saturday anyway.
You can buy this on eBay for a quarter, but it's from England, so you'll have to remember to drive your train on the other side of the tracks.

You can buy this on eBay for a quarter, but it’s from England, so you’ll have to remember to drive your train on the other side of the tracks.

  • The Doppler– This engineer hits the horn 500 yards from the first intersection and doesn’t let go until the train is out of sight of the last one.  This provides a prime example of the Doppler Effect, as everyone within a half mile gets to hear the sound waves approach, reach maximum volume, and recede.  The Doppler engineers seem to favor the mid-day routes, which means that from 10 am to 3 pm, it’s science time.

This may be the one train cartoon explanation of the Doppler Effect. I had to search through 5 pages of ambulance cartoons to find it. You’re welcome.

  • The Every Man For Himself– This engineer is just a few routes past the point of caring.  He’s been on the job for too many years and seen too many crossing jumpers.  He hits the horn once at the proper distance, and then you’d better not ignore the flashing crossing lights because you’re not going to get a second warning.  This engineer often has the night routes, when anyone stupid enough ignore a crossing sign and be on the tracks probably deserves a near-death experience.
It's the fine print on this sign that gets me. It's the kind of sign that I want to steal for my door.

It’s the fine print on this sign that gets me. It’s the kind of sign that I want to steal for my door.

  • The Menace– Once the Every Man For Himself engineer, this engineer has been stuck on the midnight route for far too long.  Inhabited areas at 3 am are his delight, and nothing brings him more joy than hitting the horn at just the right moment so that the sound waves reverberate all along the building. If he can startle more than 50 residents out of a sound sleep with a single horn blast, it’s a good night.
He's coming for you, but don't worry- the heart attack will kill you first.

He’s coming for you, but don’t worry- the heart attack will kill you first.


And there you have it- a five-point scale of freight train engineer personalities.  Feel free to reference this guide the next time you find yourself near a train track.  If you’re unfortunate enough to live near an active track, let me know which types of engineers frequent your area.  In the meantime, I’ll be researching noise cancelling headphones.

The Best Account SnapShot Ever

6 Dec

zero balance

I think that says it all.

%d bloggers like this: