Copyright © 2013 by Mike Smetzer
Copyright © 2013 by Mike Smetzer
Copyright © 2013 by Mike Smetzer
Copyright © 2013 by Mike Smetzer
I spent this morning organizing my poems, stories, and essays to send out to magazines. I updated my Word files, clicked on Poets & Writers in my Favorites list, opened the classifieds and then the little magazine database and began noting the most auspicious listings.
It is a ritual I have performed since I was an undergraduate, whenever enough happy and unhappy responses have piled up in my inbox. Pondering those listings and then the simple mechanics of formatting the letters and attachments, well, it takes a lot of time, and it reminds me that, after all these years, I am still struggling for recognition. That depresses me.
They say when anything you do depresses you, you need to examine your behavior. Something probably needs to change. I have decided that I need to change two things: my voice and my expectations.
I find that I have shifted inside and my old voice seems strange to me. What I am doing when I write is not really as important as I used to believe. My writing is no more sacred nor profound than anything else I do in life, and neither are the problems I write about. I am a good writer, of course, but I am also good at cleaning out a cooler at work, and the two are pretty much equal as accomplishments.
I also realize that I am probably much happier being unimportant. It means that I am free from all that baggage of pretense and seriousness that important writers have. I don’t have to impress anyone. Which means I don’t have to follow literary fashions or write up to academic “standards.” I can write as myself, in as common a voice as I like.
Which leads to my new expectations. I now expect and hope to be an amateur writer for the rest of my life. I don’t need to be in Paris Review or have a book published by Graywolf Press. I don’t expect to hold a creative writing chair at some university or even teach a class or two at a community college. I don’t expect to make my living off royalties and readings. I simply expect to sit down in the evenings after supper and write. I simply expect to be free.
I’ve had some grand visions of myself as a famous writer. But famous writers often seem trapped in the aura of their success and by the expectations of their followers. I have always been thankful to those editors who accepted my work. Perhaps I should also be thankful to those who rejected me, especially at crucial moments when I might have crossed over to become a professional. I don’t need to march down a paved path following one literary flag or another, not even my own. I can wander, unkempt and little seen through the fields and forests, wherever my old legs take me.
(first published in The Innisfree Poetry Journal)
This revised version Copyright © 2013 by Michael Smetzer
On a nice day I like to go down to Mill Creek Park. Often I run into Bernie. Bernie Bastardo says he lives in the park. Really it’s just his living room. He has a room where he sleeps in an old house close by. Sometimes we sit on a bench by the duck pond and talk.
Wednesday was unusually warm for October in Maine. We sat down by the pond and I got to talking about God:
“When I was growing up, our preachers talked about God. He was this obsessed overseer constantly watching you. Commit a sin and he would write you up. Do it twice and he would fire you like a cannon ball out of the Army of the Saved. Jesus was the good cop to God’s bad cop. Jesus was the fuckup’s advocate who sacrificed his life to get you reenlisted.”
“Providing you groveled on your knees, confessed to the priest, and did your penance.”
“Well, no, Bernie. If we did something really bad, we had to confess to the whole congregation, and then they prayed for us.”
“Shit! Bad enough to confess to a voice in a closet.”
“Yes, but for the little stuff we confessed directly to God in prayer.”
“Might be good to cut out the middle man. But, Mike, I’d rather face a droning priest than an angry God. I know in this town you want an attorney beside you when you get hauled before a judge.”
“Well, we had to plead our own case.”
“Actually, Mike, I don’t think God is as angry as devout people think. Maybe He’s not even interested in us. I mean people pull the same stupid crap over and over again. And we have been doing dumb shit for thousands of years. God must have gotten bored long ago. He knows we’ll never wise up. It’s not in our nature. We’re a done deal.”
“Hm. Individual people can change, though. You and I don’t have to repeat our sins.”
“I seem to.”
“And then human society evolves. We are always developing something new.”
“Does tweeting really increase moral virtue?”
“No. I don’t suppose God follows our technology.”
“God’s bored, Bro. He’s not going to notice you pocketing a little food. You could whack a whole family and just get a yawn. And if you want help, better call 911. Saying a prayer for help is like sending snail mail without a stamp. It might bounce back but it won’t be delivered.”
“I still feel like someone is listening when I pray.”
“Well, Mike, since you signed that Leonard Pelletier petition, it’s probably the FBI.
“But you do think God exists.”
“Yes, but the Big Guy’s busy. He’s probably working on some other galaxy right now. Just because we’re important to us, doesn’t mean we’re important to Him. You’re the one listening to your own prayers. And you’re the one who has to help yourself.”
“And you don’t pray, Bernie? “
“Yeah, sometimes I do pray, God help me. I’m only human.”
(first published in Brother Michael This Morning)
by Mike Smetzer
It wasn’t my department. But since you asked, I do remember some details. It must be forty years ago now. Steve and I were new. The white hats were off somewhere, so we spent the morning playing broom hockey with a pint we dug out from a fan mount. Jack Daniels, Black Label. Sometimes we found them part full, but this was empty and open. Except maybe half a teaspoon, dried to a syrup.
I remember it was hot that noon. I was sitting outside on the loading dock, leaning on the corrugated steel. The steel felt cool in the shade. The explosion had to be loud, but I don’t remember. I think I saw an orange flame. Then maybe the top two thirds of “The Largest Blast Furnace in the Western Hemisphere” disappeared in that black disaster smoke. You’ve seen it on TV.
What I really remember is the coke. Pea sized. Coming down all around me and bouncing on the concrete. I remember my hard hat was lying upside down with a sandwich in it. Pickle loaf with American cheese. Then I was standing inside the loading dock with the hard hat on my head and pickle loaf mush on my hand.
When I looked back, men were coming down the stairs along the outside and running toward the road. I remember light shirts under a black cloud. I finished lunch later, inside. I went back for my chocolate milk and bought a Butterfinger at the canteen. I have forgotten who died. No one I knew. But I remember those pellets of coke, dropped around like petrified bunny shit. We had to sweep coke balls out of the parking lot all afternoon.
first published in Staccato Fiction, Fall 2011
This revised poem Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer
***************Upside down beside the walk, a doped squirrel hung on a tree, a tag on his ear, a twitch in his nose, and a sad little look for me. “Squirrel,” I said, “You’re dull as lead. What can your trouble be?” But well I knew the drugs they brew for modern zoology. To hang in the air as dull as a bear asleep in a sewer drain. To stare at a man who is reaching a hand to staple a tag by your brain. To twitch like a sprout that is twisting about under a new-paved lane. To look down at me here under your tree and not even know to complain.
(first published in Mostly Maine)
This revised story Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer**************
Once, very long ago, a wonderful boy lived with his family in the dunes along Great Lake. Jack, for that was his name, was a dutiful son. From the first light until almost dark, he would be out in the dunes gathering food for his parents. He would wade into the lake to net little fishes. He would hunt through the saw grass for the eggs of birds. He would gather wild rice along the marsh. And in the spring he would dig sassafras near the tops of the highest dunes to make his parents tea.
Jack had to work hard, but he loved his parents and so he was happy. And his parents loved him, for he was their favorite child. Although their other children were good, the parents sometimes sighed because none was as wonderful as Jack. But they told each other, “Soon he will marry and then we will have grandchildren just as wonderful as he.”
Then one day it happened that Jack’s father saw his own death nearby, watching. He called the family together around the little fire in their hut. “Children,” he said, “when I was young my father placed a treasure in my hands. Our family has owned our treasure since before these sands around us were solid rock. All these years I have kept this treasure in darkness. Now I will bring it back to light.”
So saying, the old man opened a secret pocket and emptied a little sack into his palm. All the children, the wife, and even the old man himself sat there amazed, for out of the little sack spilled a sand of tiny gems, each sparkling with firelight. The gems filled them all with delight and awe and pride. “Jack,” the old man said, “my death has arrived. You are the most wonderful of sons, and it is to you I give our treasure. Keep our family’s secret until you too grow old.”
* * *
This happened when the blackberries were ripe. When the sumac leaves turned red, the old man kept to his hut, and before the hickory trees were bare, he died. They buried him at the landward edge of a dune so that time would raise a mound above his head. Now Jack made a pocket to hide his father’s sack. All winter he carried the gems, and in the spring he went to seek a wonderful wife.
Jack wandered among the families along the lake, but he could find no girl as wonderful as he. So one day Jack built a boat to cross the wide slough that separated the new dunes beside the lake from an ancient line of forested dunes, old shore watchers from a time when Great Lake was even larger. As he walked among the oaks, he saw a young woman beside a spring. She told him she had wandered far in the woods seeking mushrooms and fresh greens for her parents and the bulbs of spring beauties, which her mother loved. And she had been so happy gathering for her parents that she had lost her way. Then she had come to this spring, but she knew the forest around them was magical and now she was afraid to drink. To Jack she seemed the most wonderful woman he had ever met.
Smiling bravely, he knelt down and drank deeply, then sat down beside her on a log to rest. Suddenly his legs jerked straight out, and his lower body swelled up so tight the pain made him howl. The woman placed her sweater under his head and ran off into the forest calling for help.
At this point an old man dressed like a healer appeared and asked Jack what was wrong. Jack pointed to the spring and pleaded for his help. “I can help you,” he said, “but you must swear a solemn oath to do everything I ask.” Jack swore an oath on his father’s grave. The man took water from his gourd and some herbs from near the spring and whipped them into a froth. He rubbed this on Jack’s stomach and legs until they calmed.
“What do you have in this pocket?” the old man asked.
“It is my family treasure,” Jack replied.
“Let me see it. You have sworn on your father’s grave.”
Jack was horrified but he dared not break his oath, so he lay still as the old man drew the sack from its pocket and spilled the gems into his hand. In the daylight, even under the trees, the gems were too brilliant for Jack to look on, but he saw the old man’s wonder, then the greed in his eyes.
“I will take these for my service,” he said, and with one gulp he swallowed them all. Before Jack could cry out, the old man and the spring vanished.
* * *
Through summer and fall Jack’s family searched the old dunes, but no trace of the old man did they find, nor anyone who knew him. All winter and all spring Jack’s family mourned. Then, when blackberries came ripe, Jack returned alone to the old dunes. When he wandered to the place where the spring had been, he found the old man trapped in a fairy ring. In those days woodland fairies would sometimes circle a sleeper, and where they stepped mushrooms would push up their earthy heads. When the sleeper arose he could not cross their circle nor could the mushrooms be touched or the ring broken except with a fresh‑cut stick of poison oak.
“Where are my gems?” Jack demanded.
“Still in my stomach,” the old man replied. “But if you will cut a stick of poison oak and free me from this ring, I will return them to you.”
Jack cut the poison oak and took it in his hand. He walked back to the ring. “Do you swear you will return my gems if I free you?”
“I swear,” the old man answered.
When Jack broke the ring with his stick, the man hopped quickly out.
“And now return my gems,” said Jack.
The old man bent over and vomited black and green upon the ground and then again he was gone. Jack scooped the vomit into his hat and carried it home. Between the stench of the vomit and the swelling of his hands, it was the hardest trip Jack had ever made, but he was full of hope.
On the shore of the lake Jack washed the vomit in a basin. At the bottom he found a mass of gems, his family’s gems but all lackluster and black. Never again would they sparkle with colors in the firelight. Jack hid the gems in the sack and kept them as his duty in his pocket. The next spring he went again into the old dunes and found the wonderful young woman he had met by the spring. He told her his story and she married him for his honesty and his shame. Together, in their simple way, they prospered and together they were happy and only sometimes a little sad. The gems have passed through Jack’s descendants to this day, but no child since has ever seemed as wonderful as Jack.
(first published in My Legacy)
These revised poems Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer
**************A Quiet Man What I ate for supper turned my urine orange. If I were a braggart: I could startle old men in courthouse johns. I could tell weeping women I had given them disease. Believers could come to me to bathe and be healed. But I am a quiet man. I will piss in pop bottles to leave on the steps for your children.
(first published in Cottonwood Review’s Open House)
**************The New Arrival A green flag in his pocket. A breath mint in his mouth. Standing like a new rake beside the garden display. He might have descended from a Polish miller or a Roman Caesar who straddled Gaul with his legions. But he is a pair of J.C. Penney loafers, slacks by K-Mart. The courthouse has burned down on his past. Good-bye to a great grandmother, who may or may not have had a mole on her neck like his. The old gray chest in the U-Haul is only full of jeans. No shards of pottery. No arthritic bones. (first published in Hanging Loose) ************** My Last Race I reached the finish before the others, but my wife was not looking, my son was in the john. Suddenly the stretched line was my only dimension, and I moved along that line like a bead along a string. Runners broke through like sparks across a tunnel I could never leave. (first published in Cottonwood Review) ************** You Tell Me You Love a Wife Beater Divorced Three Times The sabre still rises through the air in the memory of his third wife as he chases her from their house and two blocks down the street. There he collapsed and you found him, crying and impotent, a little boy with a thin wet beard. So you took him home. You hung his sabre above the sofa. You rocked and sang him to sleep. But he has grown stronger and he no longer cries and pleads. He pushes you out of your bed. Shouts summon you in the night. One day you return to find the sabre vanished from the wall. Out back you see him practice on the saplings in your yard. * Once a woman who had lost her child found a baby wolf and brought it home. She didn’t think of pain until the teeth began to nurse. (first published in Kansas Quarterly) ************** A Man Who Told the Truth A man who told the truth wouldn’t say much. He’d sit all day and watch his life. Sometimes he’d pick up a stick and break it. Maybe he would sit on a log and watch the oaks or on a park bench in some quiet town. He might walk around some city stepping over cracks. It wouldn’t really matter. If he were to tell the truth what could he say? That spring leaves are green and winter leaves are brown? That children run in circles while old men walk straight lines? That cities are full of cracks? (first published in Wind)