Monday at the Grocery

June 27, 2017 by

 

During my first break yesterday I got a phone call from a front end supervisor. I heard her say, “Can you come to the front? There is slime flowing around in the parking lot.” Sounded urgent so I advised her to page my partner who was working in the backroom. “What the hell,” I thought. “Could be a septic pumper with a leaky valve!” I hurried down at the end of my break and asked if my partner was still outside. “Yes,” she replied with great seriousness. I went into the parking lot to help. Couldn’t find my partner. Couldn’t find any slime.

I went out back and found my partner at work. “What was in the parking lot?” I asked, excitedly.  He looked puzzled. “It was just one of the yellow floor cone signs we set out in the fire lane. Someone knocked it over. The front end called for me to “take care of the sign that was rolling around in the parking lot.”

I suppose I could get a hearing aid, but life would be less interesting.

 

Detail from

Detail from “Sunset” – Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Strange New Alchemy

June 26, 2017 by

 

Strange New Alchemy by Vera Lisa Smetzer

 

Copyright 2017 by Alvera Lisa Smetzer

Skunky’s Steel Mill Story: A Verse Fiction

June 24, 2017 by

 

Wasn’t my department, Mikey. But, God! I’ll never
forget that day. Must be forty years ago now.
Still seems clear as that Pellegrino you’re drinking.

Steve and I were new hires then. Lloyd, our foreman,
had gone off somewhere, so that morning we played
broom hockey with a pint we dug out of a fan mount.

Jack Daniels, Black Label. Pretty good sipping whiskey!
Sometimes we found bottles part full, but this was open
and empty. Except maybe half a teaspoon, dried to a syrup.

I remember it was hot that noon. No breeze off the lake.
I was sitting outside on the loading dock, leaning
on the corrugated steel. That 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 the top two thirds of Number 3
Blast Furnace disappeared in churning, black disaster smoke.

You’ve seen that stuff on CNN. Can’t really see much.
What I remember is the little balls of coke. Pea sized.
Coming down all around and bouncing on the concrete.

I had a carton of chocolate milk beside me. My hard hat
was upside down on the concrete with an unwrapped
sandwich inside. Pickle loaf with American cheese.

Next thing I remember, I was standing inside the dock,
listening to alarms going off all over the plant. My hard hat
was on my head and pickle loaf mush was on my hand.

I looked back. Men were hustling down the stairs along
the outside of the furnace and running toward the road.
I remember light shirts moving under a black cloud.

I finished lunch later, inside. Went back to the dock
for my chocolate milk. Bought a Butterfinger and a bag
of Cheetos at the power station canteen. Tasted good.

I have forgotten who died. They posted a list by the clock.
No one I knew. Not my department. But I remember those
pellets of coke, dropped around like petrified bunny shit.

We swept coke balls off the parking, all afternoon.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer
A prose version of this story was first published in Staccato Fiction, Fall 2011.

 

Discussion

Skunky’s story started with one of my experiences working at the steel mills along the southern tip of Lake Michigan in the 1970’s. I had a job in the power station of the sprawling Bethlehem Steel complex at Burns Harbor, Indiana. Several of us were outside on the loading dock eating lunch when the coke bin of the blast furnace across the street exploded. The scene was as described. All I added was the carnage. I then gave Skunky an audience – a dumb-ass new kid like I was when I started in the mills. So I end up talking to myself again.

Verse novels are an established genre that is growing in popularity, but the use of verse is also effective with shorter works of fiction. I like to use it for some short short stories. Shorter verse fiction does not use as many characters or points of view as are sometimes found in verse novels. Otherwise, it works the same way – by combining the line structure and concentration of poetry with the plot development, syntax, and rhythms of prose fiction.

Mike Smetzer at Harbor - Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Mike Smetzer at Harbor – Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders & George Armstrong Custer

June 21, 2017 by

 

People need heroes. If a person does a simple act to help others in danger, we make that person into a hero. We do that even if the risk involved is low. Believing that heroes walk among us makes us feel stronger and safer. Rewarding heroes encourages imitation and strengthens society. Designating heroes is good for us all.

But when it comes to politics, people want superheroes. We want larger-than-life champions who will ride forth and slay dragons. Donald Trump is the superhero of the alt-right. He was elected to drive back immigrants and the liberal elite. Bernie Sanders is becoming the superhero of progressives. Sander will rally moderates to the progressive cause and overthrow the Vulgarians of the right. He talks of extending social programs, including free college tuition and Medicare for all. Had he only been nominated, it is said, he would have handily defeated the demon Trump. The reality is that the U.S. has swung to the right and Trump is just an opportunist grafted onto that movement. Defeating Trump will not win back the Senate or House.

Personally, I feel uneasy with superheroes. Obama was elected to his first term as something of a superhero. He was one of the few Congressmen opposing the stupidity of G. W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and so voters thought he could get us out of war in the Middle East. Of course, he could not. Obama as president shrank from superhero to pretty-good-Joe. When we embrace superheros, we are buying into delusion. Superheros either disappoint like Obama or they deliver, like Hitler. Germans embraced Hitler out of the desperation caused by war reparations and depression following WWI. Hitler promised to make Germany strong again. And he did. For a while.

George Armstrong Custer was another superhero. He was rightly famous for his bravery and daring during the Civil War.  He saw himself and his 7th Cavalry as larger than life. He believed he really was a superhero. But he led all who followed him to their death. In political life, superheroes can inspire millions for a year or two. For the long haul, it is wiser to follow a down-to-earth, practical problem solver, if you can find one. Obama, after he shrank, was OK. The only lasting superheroes in politics are the ones who died before reality set in. If you need to follow a force that is larger than life, go to your church, temple, synagogue, or mosque.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Mike Smetzer in Colorado - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Mike Smetzer in Colorado – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

The Widow Battinelli

June 19, 2017 by

 

Father Lucarelli consoles me, my speech
falters. Black veiled ladies bring by a meal,

offer to pray with me for his soul, to beseech
God. I tear their prayer card as I kneel

next to Cosmo’s photograph on a pool of lace.
At night, I open the urn by the bed,

scoop cold ashes to smooth across my face.
Our cat circles and cries for the dead,

the familiar lap in the empty chair.
Cosmo’s silver watch beats distressed,

the weight of sixty years I bear.
Coarse links chafe against my breast.

Pregare Dio!” the black veils drone.
My faith gone dry as ash and bone.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Alvera Lisa Smetzer

Angel of Strength - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Strength – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Country Fable

June 18, 2017 by

 

A matronly pheasant walks into a field
and sees four cows looking down a well.

Flying up on a cow, she peers down at
cock pheasant looking up from the bottom.

“Good!” she says, “Let him stay there!
He can check out the well’s bottom for a change.”

“Know what you mean,” sighs one cow.
“Last week our bull fell in the cistern.”

“Bet he was ugly! Did you get help?”
“Noooo,” answers the cow. “He’s still there.”

“Been sweet and peaceful,” says another cow,
chewing cud, “except for the stink.”

“Hey!” says a third cow, “Come share our corn.
Good shelled corn! Farmer’s wife don’t care.”

“But the farmer!” cries the pheasant, alarmed.
“Fell in the silo,” say all the cows.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Bernie Smetzer and the chickens

Dad with his Chickens

 

Jack & Jill Baby Shower

June 16, 2017 by

 

A friend at work went to a Jack & Jill baby shower at a park. His old drinking buddies were there sitting around looking lost with cans of soda in their hands. He said it felt really weird doing baby shower stuff and drinking sodas with his buddies. Sounds like hell, I said. Oh no it doesn’t, I thought. It sounds like what heaven will be like. No beer for eternity.

 

Philosophy of Abundance!

Philosophy of Abundance!

A Simple Communion: An Old Man Buries His Withered Fruits

June 15, 2017 by

 

After years of desiccation, an old man gathered
up the withered fruits of what had been his life.
He buried them under the weeds in his garden
and left them to rot.  Inside, he waited his turn.

But in the spring his withered fruits sprouted
and small buds, then stunted flowers came forth.
Discovering his fruits were still alive, the old man
begrudgingly weeded his garden and watered them.

By fall his garden had ripened with tiny fruits.
Because he was still alive, he ate some and found
them sweet and wholesome. He gathered the rest
to make a meal for those who lived around him.  

During the winter snows the old man disappeared,
but his garden flowered in the spring, and in the fall
it gave a small harvest.  His neighbors collected
his fruits and shared them in the old man’s memory.

The next day the old man came home:
“Who the fuck ate my garden!?”

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

A prose version of this parable was published in 2010 on Brother Michael This Morning.

Sad Mike - photo by Mike Smetzer

Sad Mike – photo by Mike Smetzer

In Captivity

June 12, 2017 by

 

by Vera Lisa Smetzer

 

Yesterday you were lucid, lithium
working, then at midnight, the walls

closed into so small a space,
you screamed until they gagged you,

tied you to the bed and now,
you rock, unbound, smile up at me,

point to your crayon drawings
taped to the pale beige walls.

Birds. “Large enough to ride on,”
you whisper and reach for my hand.

Over the speakers we hear Bach’s Prelude,
then Fugue in C. You keep pacing

measured steps from bed to bureau,
creating space with sweeping strokes

of a fat blue Crayola. You map your
flight, flap your arms, as you

find your voice, you hum,
then call as birds do after the storm.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Alvera Lisa Smetzer

Sky above Land's End, Maine - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Sky above Land’s End, Maine – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Counting Down the Clock: A New Year’s Story of Magical Darkness

June 11, 2017 by

 

As the new kid at work, Tom would have to turn on the pumps and open the Standard Oil station at 7 a.m. on New Year’s Day — after he shoveled tonight’s snow from around the pump islands.  So he had left his fiancée Kathy at her house earlier that evening. With the snowstorm moving in, Kathy would have to celebrate New Year’s Eve in her parents’ home. Tom ushered in 1965 alone, at 11 p.m. Chicago time, on his couch, by watching Guy Lombardo and his orchestra perform live at New York’s Waldorf Astoria.

As Tom listened to the orchestra play “Auld Lang Syne,” he sipped ginger ale in the comfort of his one-bedroom rented bungalow. Although the snowstorm had begun gusting outside, the gaiety on his television enhanced his optimism about the coming year. Tom was just half a year out of high school, but the station’s owner was already planning to make him assistant manager next month when Bob left for Paris Island and his basic training in the Marines. For Tom, it would be the next step into the future of his dreams.

By 3 a.m., a blizzard had developed, but Tom was in bed dreaming that he was walking out to check the mailbox by the road. In reality, the county plow had sheared off his mailbox at 1 a.m. It was now buried in a snow bank somewhere between its stump and the state highway. But in Tom’s dream, he had just painted the box white and planted marigolds around it. It was a good dream. Tom liked getting mail, even junk mail. Little greetings, he thought, from his fellow Americans and the Free World.

Tom rolled onto his back. As the vision of his mailbox faded, Tom’s eyes opened. Then they opened wider. A 10-gauge shotgun was pointing into his face. At its other end in the shadows stood a shape like a man. Tom wanted to sit up but the bore was only inches from his eyes. He imagined the long tube running back to the poised shell. The end sight glistened in the dark. A bony left hand appeared with a wind-up timer clock and placed it on the night stand.

“When the alarm sounds, you will die.”

The voice sounded brittle and dry, like leaves scuttering along a sidewalk. Tom stared at the luminous numbers and hands. The timer was set for four minutes. A long finger reached out  and pressed a switch. The clock began ticking. Tom watched the second hand hop happily around the clock’s face.

Outside a gust of snow rattled his bedroom window. A mistake? Tom thought. The wrong house?

“Are you sure you want me?”

Tom told the shadow his name and address. The figure held steady.

Something will change, Tom thought. It always does in a dream. Nothing changed. The clock ticked loudly. “What have I done?” he thought. “I live a quiet life. I work hard. What have I done to anyone?”

“Sir,” he asked, “why do I have to die?”

Inside the room’s silence Tom heard only the ticking. And outside the wind.

Tom had expected to marry Kathy in June and then have three children. He had expected to become station manager, then find a better job. He had expected to win his personal War on Poverty, to enjoy life in the Great Society that President Johnson had promised. His old age he had expected to be comfortable with many grandchildren. Tom had expected a future.

Two minutes left.

Tom studied the figure holding the gun, but all he could see was a silhouette. A tall figure with a top hat and hair coming out the sides. A tight coat. A beard. In the dark he could see no details of the face. No depth. The shape seemed flat as a poster, except for the arms on the shotgun pointing at him. Tom smelled gun oil. He heard the blizzard swirl against his walls.

The clock ticked on.

Tom had never really considered his death. He had only graduated from high school in June. He had just turned eighteen in December. His parents were still alive, his grandparents. It didn’t make sense that Tom should die before them. To be killed now, for no apparent reason . . . Why was this old man taking his future?

Twenty seconds left.

The figure pulled back the hammer. Tom pushed his head deeper into his pillow.

Seventeen seconds.

But to Tom the ticks now seemed uneven and farther apart.

Fifteen seconds.

Tom tried again to imagine himself back into his dream. The image of his mailbox would not come. He tried to visualize the station where he worked. He tried to picture Kathy dancing at sock hops in the gym, Kathy dressed up for the prom. He tried to hear again the music of Guy Lombardo and before that the comforting voice of Walter Cronkite on the evening news, analyzing the old year’s developments in Vietnam.

Twelve seconds.

The ticks became maddeningly slow, and erratic. Tom thought his mind must be racing. He expected to see his whole life pass in a formal goodbye. Tom was disappointed. He could picture nothing. No people. No places. No scenes from his life. He could not imagine his mother’s face, Kathy’s expression when he had proposed, his family’s trailer in the woods, his friends from high school. All he could see was the bore of the shotgun moving closer, almost resting on his nose. He could feel its cold.

Four seconds.

Silence. Another tick.

Three seconds.

A longer silence. Tick.

Two seconds.

Then . . . He stared at the clock and realized it had stopped. Yes, it seemed completely stopped. Tom watched the figure but the shadow did not move. Poised but frozen, like the hands on the clock.

“Why doesn’t he kill me now?” Tom thought. “Can’t he see the clock has stopped?” Tick. Tom looked at the clock.

Only one second left!

Tom stopped breathing. His throat tightened. The second left on the clock glowed suspended in the dark. Tom’s life clung like a drop to the blade of the second hand. Hanging between a past he could not recall and the instant of his death.  

Outside his bungalow, the blizzard screamed. Gust upon gust rattled the snow-pasted windows in their frames.

The slightest jar and the clock could tick. The wind. A plow out on the road. His breathing. He feared the beating of his heart.

Tom abandoned the people and places of his life. He abandoned his future. Nothing mattered beyond that last second of time. Tom wanted no one, nothing. He was totally alert. Totally fixed in space and time. Totally alive inside the terror of his impending death.

Only Tom’s eyes moved about the room, returning again and again to the luminous face of the clock.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Discussion

“Counting Down the Clock” began as a dream in the early 1970’s. It was a nightmare of fear and entrapment, of unexpected, untimely, and inescapable death. But as I wrote and revised the story, a contrast developed between the mundane realism of the setting and the horror of the intrusion. Eventually I realized that the feelings in the dream were bound up with the Vietnam War and the enlistment posters and parodies of Uncle Sam that were everywhere at that time.

The story is allegory, magical realism, horror, slipstream, or just a really bad trip, man. And, yes, I know, it took me 45 years to get it done. If it is done.

 

Detail from "Moon Night" - acrylic painting on wood by Mike Smetzer

Detail from “Moon Night” – acrylic painting on wood by Mike Smetzer