Archive for the ‘Photography,’ Category

The Angry Librarian: A Short Story Set in South Portland, Maine

June 22, 2018

 

The last few days have been wet here in southern Maine. So Monday afternoon I skipped my usual puttering in the garden after work. Instead I walked over to the town library between showers for a little reading before going on to our church in the shoe store. I needed to check some references for next Sunday’s sermon on the transformation of Saul into Paul the Apostle.

On the way I joined up with Bernie Bastardo. We both work at the supermarket. I clerk for center store and he humps trash to the back and cleans for maintenance. I’ve been full time there for ten years now, since I came east from Kansas. Bernie works part time, off and on, pretty much when they need someone in a hurry.

When I met him, Bernie was dripping wet.

“What happened, Bernie?”

“Hi, Bro. I had some wine to warm up and fell asleep on my bench by the duck pond. That last squall caught me napping. I’m heading to the library to dry out.”

“You know, Bernie, drying out might be a good idea. I’ve been meaning to tell you, the store needs help and they will take you back on maintenance for the summer.”

“I’m good for now, Mike.”

Our town has a newish library they built when the economy was good. That’s been a while. The library’s nice. It has a lot of windows to let in the sun. The inside is all one open space like the main hall of a church.

Once we got inside we saw Rufus and Chip at the computers. They also work at the store.

Chip clerks natural foods. He’s skinny and smooth talking, so the health-conscious ladies think he is healthy in mind and body. Actually he loves over-priced gourmet cheeseburgers and the women who serve them.

Rufus is a big good-natured guy. He stocks several stores for the beer distributor. Ours is usually his last stop. If a guy lends Rufus $100, he’ll get it back. If a gal makes a date with Rufus, he might go off drinking after work and forget to pick her up. The young ladies at the store don’t want their divorced moms dating Rufus, but when they are out for fun, they like to party with him.

They both show up sometimes at our ministry in the old shoe store downtown. We call it The Shoestring Chapel. It’s interdenominational, of course, and no one gets paid, but it has helped some of us change our lives. We put together a pretty spirited band with an old drum kit, two or three electric guitars and a whole lot of plastic recorders.

“Chip. Rufus. I knew you guys got off work, but I didn’t expect to see you at the library!”

“Brother Mike. We lost our smartphones. So we’re here to check FB before happy hour.”

“You both lost your phones?”

“Yeah, we were doing the bars Saturday night with two girls we met in the Old Port. Sunday morning we realized our phones were gone.”

A red-haired librarian in her thirties was hovering nearby watching us. I’ve talked to her a few times. Her name’s Katie. She’s Episcopalian.

The guys checked their messages and posts.

“Nothing from those girls,” said Chip, “and nothing about our phones.”

“Well, happy hour starts in thirty minutes,” said Rufus. “So at least we can relax and have some fun.”

“Yes,” I said, “or maybe, in view of what happened Saturday night, you might want to make a change and stop by the chapel for a while.”

Rufus put up his hands. “Whoa, Mike! It’s not like we passed out and the girls took our phones. We just lost them. And we did have a lot of fun!”

That was when the librarian came over. Katie is a well-built lady, but packaged not to show it.

“We are discussing the wisdom of drinking,” I told her.

“I think you gentlemen might be more comfortable in the group study area in back. This way, please.”

There is just one long table in that area and a dweeby guy was working on his laptop at one end.

“You can talk to each other in here, but, please, use your inside voices. This area has only a partial wall and we have other patrons.”

“Thank you,” I told her. “We appreciate your suggestion.”

Chip caught the librarian’s attention with a sweet smile. “I can’t help but notice,” he confided, “that sweater really goes well with your blue eyes.”

Katie squinted hard at Chip and left.

“Well, Brother Mike,” Rufus observed, “if we hadn’t gone drinking, I guess we’d still have our cells.”

“The Bible doesn’t say don’t drink, Rufus, but Proverbs does say, ‘Look not on the wine when it is red.’”

Rufus reflected. “Probably means drink white wine. You get less of a headache.”

“It could mean drink a white Zinfandel or a rosé,” suggested Chip. “If you remove the skins from red grapes, the wine doesn’t become red.”

I cleared my throat. “I think the wine they were supposed to drink wasn’t red because they added water. They needed some alcohol in their water to kill germs and stay healthy, but they didn’t need full-strength wine. They didn’t need to get drunk.”

Bernie had looked puzzled listening to Rufus and Chip. “Most of the wines I drink have grain alcohol added, which is clear, but they are still red.”

Chip smirked. “That red must be coloring, Bernie. I don’t think your wines ever saw a grape. Probably raw ethanol and water.”

“Maybe a little diesel for flavor” added Rufus.

The guys had a big laugh.

“Hey!” Bernie protested, “Wild Irish Rose is not that bad.”

The librarian’s face reappeared in the doorway, scowling. “I’m not sure this conversation about drinking is appropriate around young people. And a PUBLIC library is not an appropriate place to discuss religious morality. Or lack of it.  Please keep it down!”

“Sorry, Katie,” I said. She left abruptly.

Chip’s gaze followed her. “Not a bad looking woman. Love those flashing eyes. Wonder what her sign is.”

“Skull ‘n crossbones,” offered Rufus.

The guys all laughed.

“Hey, bros,” I said, “Katie’s just doing her job.

“Oh-oh,” said Rufus, “she’s back.”

“I told you to keep it down!  I’m sure you are bothering this gentleman on his laptop.”

“But,” said Rufus, “he’s only looking up Casual Encounters on Craig’s List.”

The dweeb looked up and smiled, “w4w.”

“We are considering how much Christians should drink,” I explained. “It’s a delicate question and people need to joke to relieve their tension.”

Katie was not appeased. “I’m afraid this study room is not an appropriate place for an AA meeting.”

“But, Sunshine,” Chip objected, “we’re not alcoholics!”

“At least not reformed alcoholics,” laughed Rufus.

Katie looked at me. “I guess you haven’t gotten them to take the first step, Brother Mike.”

“They aren’t actually alcoholics, Katie. And AA meets in the old church on the ridge. You know, the one that lost its bell tower and has the bell sitting on the grass.”

“Now wouldn’t that church be a lovely place for THIS meeting.”

“Oh,” I said.

NOW, please!” commanded the librarian.

Rufus laughed. “We’ll go quietly.”

“That would be the first quiet thing you have done.”

As Katie escorted us down the poorly lit stairs and out the door, we noticed that the last showers had stopped. The sky had lightened and there were blue patches among the clouds. Rufus and Chip took off for happy hour. 

Chip smiled back at me. “See you at the market, Brother Mike, but let’s not talk any more this week about whether Christians should drink.”

“Right men!” said Rufus. “Time for action.”

Bernie and I looked back and saw that Katie had withdrawn into the dark stairway.  You could still see her shadow watching. She looked delicate. Like a deer hiding.

Bernie smiled. “I bet Katie would like to go for a walk with us.”

“She can’t do that, Bernie. She has to stay at her job.”

“No, she doesn’t have to stay. And she doesn’t want to.”

“But she will stay, Bernie.”

“Yes, I guess you are right. But I’d hate to see her stay here for her whole life.”

“A librarian could be exactly what Katie wants to be. She could be happy among her books, and she may not want to change.”

Bernie shook his head. “She wants more from her life.”

We walked past Holy Cross, the tank farm, and the marina, all the way to the harbor lighthouses. We watched a tanker leave and an island ferry come in and dock across the river.

Bernie became reflective. “People need to feel free to live the life they want.”

I thought about my life. “When I lived out in Kansas, I had a different life. I was a night clerk at a Best Western and sat around all night alone.”

“So you quit!”

“Well, it wasn’t that abrupt. But you are right, Bernie. I had to find something I wanted to do. I had to find a way of life I wanted to live. My loneliness led me to change my life.”

I glanced over at Bernie. “Are you comfortable living the life you live?”

“Yes, for now.”

“And so, I think, are Chip and Rufus. But we can all create a new life for ourselves. Live and act like someone we’ve never been. Someone we didn’t know we could become.”

“I don’t want to lose who I am, Brother Mike. People think I’m just a bum, but I don’t want to lose the way I think and feel. I am who I am.”

“I think I am still who I was back in Kansas. If I had to become a night clerk again, I would be lonely again. But I’ve changed the habits of my life and how I interact with people, and now I am happier. My life feels different but I still feel like me inside.”

Several fishing boats were coming in for the day. Watching them took me back to the cattle I would watch moving leisurely along the fence lines in Kansas. There was something quiet and purposeful, something eternal about the boats and the cattle as they followed their familiar course into evening.

And I realized how the waves of water that had grown into swells reminded me of the waves of the land across the plains. I missed looking up at night into the bright, starry heavens from those dark, thinly populated plains. I loved the expansiveness of the hills in Kansas and of the ocean, and I loved that huge sky above them both.

“Hey, Mike! Look over by the lighthouse.” Bernie pointed toward the jetty going out to Spring Point Light. “That librarian must have gotten off work.”

I saw a slender, red-haired figure walking serenely across the granite slabs out among the waves.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Maine Coast. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Maine Coast. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

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The Best Friend You Can Find

June 18, 2018

 

Some years ago, in central Maine, a selectman and his wife lived at a little homestead called Duck Pond Farm, right along the eastern edge of Kanokolus Bog. The couple had one child, a pretty little eight-year-old daughter named Cindy. Pretty Cindy, with her mother’s guidance, kept two small flocks of tame ducks on the family’s farm.

Then, when Cindy turned nine, the selectman bought her an attractive pair of Saxony ducks and built her a new enclosure for them next to her mallards and Pekins. In the late spring Cindy and her mother let the new Saxony hen go broody to begin their new flock. Early every morning, Cindy came down to the enclosures to collect the mallard and Pekin eggs to sell. She would always check on the Saxony hen and count the eggs in the mother duck’s nest. Each day revealed another egg, but Cindy felt the laying was taking forever. Finally Cindy brought her mother down with her.

“Make that stupid duck sit on her eggs! I want the Saxony ducklings to hatch out NOW!”

“Cindy,” her mother said, “you must be patient! Mother duck will not start to brood until she lays a couple more eggs, and then she will have to incubate them for almost a month.”

“No! I want Saxony ducklings to show my friends now! Why can’t we put her eggs in an incubator like we did the Pekins’?”

“I’m sorry, Cindy. This duck was always a good mother before she came to us. She deserves to keep her ducklings. You will just have to wait.”

Cindy was not about to wait. She went out the gate and marched along the edge of the bog. There she found a nest with one large blue-green egg. “This will do very well,” she said with glee and she ran off with it in her pocket. “I’ll get another one like this.”

Sadly, she could not find any more nests with eggs. Then she spied a nest in the weeds just above the water. Grumbling she waded out and found one small pale brown egg. “Is this all I get!?” She grabbed the little egg in disgust and knocked the nest down into the water with a stick.

Pretty Cindy brought the two eggs back to the tame duck’s nest and tucked them in with the others. She scowled at how they looked among the uniform white eggs. “Wrong colors! Wrong sizes! But the stupid duck won’t notice.”

Mother duck did a lot of quacking, but after she laid her next egg, she sat down to brood. When the ducklings hatched, two of them were different. One was big with gray down. It later developed mottled gray-brown and white feathers. The other was small and drab to begin with. It later grew weird long legs and brown and buff feathers.

This second duckling caused the entire duck family great frustration. While the big one was ugly, it did waddle out with the other ducklings to swim in the pond. The little one was helpless and had to be fed slugs, snails, and insects for weeks in the nest. Then when it left the nest, it had little interest in grubbing through the grass. It could swim, but it did not swim gracefully, no matter how much preen oil mother duck applied. And it retreated to the cattails after a couple minutes. It was small like a mallard but it would not upend like a mallard to grab food below the surface. It preferred to wade around in the cattails and stand still in the shallows waiting for its food to swim by. Lazy, stupid, ugly duckling!

Cindy screamed with exasperation the moment she saw the ugly ducklings in the nest. “I can’t show YOU to my friends!” She shooed them away from the food she put out for the other ducks and threatened to feed them to the barn cat that eyed the ducklings from outside the pond fence. Before Cindy’s friends came to visit, she shut the ugly ducklings in an old outhouse. The normal ducklings soon learned to watch the ugly ducklings coldly, and they would not nest with them, but at least the ugly ducklings had each other. And mother duck foraged up enough food to keep them alive until they could feed themselves.

The little ugly duckling blamed himself for being so backward and making life harder for his big nest mate. It is very sad, he thought, but I can endure Cindy’s cruelty and the other ducklings’ contempt, and I will learn from it because I have a friend. I have already learned the comfort of love.

Then the day came when three of Cindy’s girlfriends arrived unexpectedly and went down to see the Saxony ducklings. They laughed uncontrollably at the ugly ducklings and called Cindy “Ugly Ducks’ Mama.” Cindy turned red with rage, and after her friends left she opened the back gate and threw stones at the ugly ducklings to drive them away from the pond. “If you come back, I’ll mix you into the slop for the pigs!”

The ugly ducklings had never been outside Duck Pond Farm. They felt fear but also excitement as they set off to explore the pools in the bog. Big Duckling swam and Little Duckling waded along beside her. They missed mother duck but they still had each other.

“We will learn together how to survive in this big world,” said little duckling. “Maybe someday we will be as wise as the owl.”

The third pool they visited was home to a flock of wild mallards. The ugly ducklings rushed over to greet them.

“Can we join your flock?”

The mallards tightened their circle and snapped at them when they tried to come inside. But if they stayed along the edges of the flock, they were simply ignored.

“They don’t want us!” said Big Duckling.

“No,” said Little Duckling, “but we can learn how to survive in the wild by watching them, and staying next to them will give us some protection. And we still have each other’s love.”

And so they spent the summer and early autumn with the mallard flock as neighbors, and they learned many shrewd lessons about living in the bog. But one morning when the nights had turned cold, the mallard flock flew off into the sky and that evening they did not return.

Once ice covered the water, the ugly ducklings could not survive at the pool. They did not dare go back to Duck Pond Farm. They had no one to teach them to migrate. So they set off flying awkwardly in circles around the bog searching for some place they could winter.

That was how they came to fly in over the fence and land in Lester Ludington’s turkey yard. The ugly ducklings walked into a turkey house and tried to blend in. There was plenty to eat. And they would hide in a dark corner when Mr. Ludington came around. The inmates mostly just walked around befuddled and hardly seemed to notice.

After a few days, one of the turkeys started to watch them. Then he led over a small group of turkeys to examine them.

“What are you two?” asked Tom Turkey.

“We’re abandoned ducklings from Duck Pond Farm.”

“Oh, so you’re ducks,” nodded Tom. “You don’t look like ducks.”

“If they quack like a duck,” noted one of the hens, “they must be ducks.”

“But they don’t quack,” said Tom.

“Well, the big one eats grain like a duck,” said another hen. “And it has webbed feet.”

“But the other don’t,” said Tom. “And it eats roaches and beetles and worms, but it leaves the grain.”

“Yesterday,” said a third hen, “I saw it swallow a mouse.”

“Let’s chuck ‘em both out in the snow!” said Tom.

“No,” said the second hen, “let ‘em be. We have plenty of room since Thanksgiving. And I want to see how they turn out. The big one could be a genetically modified goose.”

“And the little one?” asked Tom.

“A genetically modified chicken.”

“Could be,” said the first hen.

“Boy,” said Tom, “that experiment sure went sour!”

And the turkeys all went back to walking around befuddled.

“Well,” said Little Duckling, “we have the shelter of a house and plenty to eat. We can survive. This is an important lesson on making do.”

“Can’t say much for the company,” said Big Duckling.

“But at least we have each other’s love,” said Little Duckling.

And so the ugly ducklings survived the winter hiding among the turkeys and growing bigger and more knowledgeable about the world. With spring the ice melted on the bog and the two ugly ducklings flew out of the turkey farm and returned to the bog. Spring is a happy time when insects and little fishes and crayfish and frogs come back out into the world, and the tender sprouts come up, and there is plenty to eat. And with the spring the wild mallards returned to the pool.

But things were not as they had been last fall for Big Duckling. This year when Big Duckling approached the flock, they did not try to bite but instead fled from her presence, watching her with fear. When they found she was not attacking, they formed a retinue around her. Big Duckling looked down at her image in the water and cried out, “Oh! I am big and beautiful! I am not a duckling at all. I am a white swan!”

A white swan! thought Little Duckling. My nest mate changed so slowly in front of me that I never saw it. This is a wonderful lesson for us!

Little Duckling was filled with joy at Big Duckling’s good fortune. “You have learned who you are!” he cried. But when he waded towards her, the mallards snapped at him with their bills. Little Duckling retreated, hiding among the cattails along the bank, but Swan never noticed.

That night, for the first night since he had hatched, Little Duckling slept alone. In truth, Little Duckling slept very little that night. The next morning, when Swan and the mallards left the shore, Little Duckling waded over and called out to Swan. What came out was not his usual ugly duckling call but a loud booming cry he had never made before. In desperation he called again, repeating the deep pumping booms. All the mallards stopped, looking at him. “He’s a bittern!” shouted all the mallards.

“A bittern?” asked Little Duckling.

“A squat, drab, dumpy loud-mouthed little wading bird. A bittern!”

“A Thunder Pumper!” laughed one mallard.

“A Stake Driver!” mocked another.

“A Water Belcher!” shouted a third.

“I’m your nest mate,” cried Little Duckling to Swan. Speechless, Swan turned away and swam into the deepest part of the pool. The ducks followed her, but Bittern was afraid to swim into deep and open water.

After another night alone, Bittern walked over to Swan before she and her retinue had entered the water.

“Remember me? We hatched together. We lived with the turkeys together.”

The mallards looked at Swan with surprise.

“I don’t live with turkeys,” she hissed. “I am a swan. And swans don’t nest with bitterns.” Then she grabbed a bill full of Bittern’s feathers and the mallards joined in the attack. Only Bittern’s long legs saved him from being plucked bare.

Bruised and alone, Bittern hid in the weeds and built a nest in the cattails where he could watch Swan and her mallards swim by. “This is harder than being driven out of Duck Pond Farm,” Bittern reflected. “Cindy always hated me, but I thought Swan loved me. It is a bitter lesson on trusting love.” During the dark nights, a coldness entered Bittern’s soul, a coldness he could only partly expel with his pumping calls in the morning.

Desperately alone, Bittern walked away from the pond one morning on his stick-like legs. Deep in the woods above the bog he met a black bear. Bear had pushed down a bee tree and gorged himself on honey.

“Come have some honey,” Bear offered. “There is still plenty left.”

“Thank you, friend,” said Bittern, approaching warily. “Are you sure you are quite full?”

“Can’t eat another bite,” said Bear.

Bittern delighted in the feast of honey and bees. “Good night, feast mate,” Bittern said as they parted company.

The next day Bittern again met Bear in the woods. Bear had just grubbed up a rotten stump and filled himself with sowbugs and worms.

“Come, Bittern,” said Bear. “Come join me in these excellent grubs.”

“Are you sure you have had enough?”

“Quite full,” said Bear.

They both relaxed, full and lazy from their feast.

“Look, Bittern, my feast mate, why don’t you come join me for dinner tomorrow? I can bring hundreds of fish home to my den.”

“How can you catch so many fish?”

“Easy,” said Bear, “dead grass over a collapsing fence has formed a natural weir across Bacon Brook. The water level in the brook is falling from the lack of rain. So the fish are trapped behind the weir.”

“Of course I will come,” said Bittern, but looking about at the sky he became quiet and thoughtful. As he left, Bittern asked, “May I bring a friend?”

“Sure!” said Bear.

At the pool, Bittern met the beautiful Swan coming to shore for the night. He told her of the wonderful feasts Bear had shared. “Come with me tomorrow and share in our feast of fish.”

“Fresh fish! I will come,” said Swan, “but don’t come get me. I’ll slip away and join you in the woods. If this feast is as good as you say, Bittern, you may wade along behind me, at a distance, and join the mallards in enjoying my beauty.”

That night it rained.

When Bittern and Swan arrived at Bear’s den, Bear was in an ugly mood. The rain had raised the water level in the creek and freed most of the fish from the weir. He was hungry but had only found six minnows for their dinner. Looking up Bear saw the beautiful Swan standing next to the drab Bittern. “Delicious!” Bear cried, and he grabbed Swan and devoured her, feathers and all. Fully fed his mood softened.

“Ummmph,” said Bear, blowing out some feathers. “Now I am full. Come Bittern, why don’t you eat these minnows?”

“Are you sure you can’t eat more?”

“No more today. Ummmph.”

“Thank you, Bear,” said Bittern. And as Bittern finished the minnows, he reflected, “This dinner is small but it has been the most satisfying I have ever had. I have learned now the comfort of revenge.”

As they parted company for the day, Bear again invited Bittern to dinner. “I know a clearing in the woods full of tame raspberry bushes that escaped from Duck Pond Farm. They must be big and juicy after the rain and fit for a princess.”

“I have never eaten tame raspberries,” said Bittern cautiously, “but I will try them.” Maybe, he thought, they will be filled with tasty little bugs. Then Bittern became quiet and thought some more.

“May I bring a friend?”

“Sure!” said Bear.

On the way back to his solitary nest, Bittern went round by Duck Pond Farm. In the farmyard he saw pretty Cindy dropping kittens one by one into a water trough. “One of you must swim long enough to impress my friends!”

“Excuse me, Miss Cindy,” said Bittern. “I want to apologize for being such a disappointment to you last summer.”

“I should think so.”

“I would be honored if you would join me at a feast of raspberries a friend of mine is giving tomorrow in the woods.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Cindy. “Our tame raspberries aren’t ripe yet and I can’t wait.”

As Bittern settled down for the night, he thought judiciously about his new feast mate and the newest lesson life had taught him: “Bittern,” he told himself, “Bear is the best friend you can find in life. When he invites you to dinner, he intends to be a generous host. Even so, you are always wise to bring along a more delectable companion.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Leaves on a Pond. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Leaves on a Pond. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

How Old Elbert Got Born

June 13, 2018

 

Old Elbert was born on his parents’ farm in a hilly part of Indiana called The Porter County Wilderness. The way it happened marked him for life.

Back when Elbert was born, the farms in The Wilderness didn’t have phone service. That meant Elbert’s dad had to go for the doctor in person. Carl’s Ford wouldn’t start so he drove a Waterloo Boy tractor with steel wheels through a snowstorm until he reached Lester Goode’s farmhouse. The Goodes lived on the edge of The Wilderness. And they had the last phone on the line from town.

Telephone poles hadn’t made it that far yet. The wire was just stapled to the trees. Sometimes the phone worked. As luck would have it, it didn’t matter. Doc Yeager was already there drinking George Dickel and playing Texas hold ’em with the township trustees.

The doctor was smiling over his winnings when he looked up and through the kitchen to see Carl coming in from the mudroom on the other side.

“Bullshit!” he said, “At least cows have a calving season.”

“You’re a doctor,” Lester Goode reminded him. “You gotta go.”

The doctor scowled and went to put on his great coat in the mudroom.

“If she’s dropping twins, Carl, it will be twice the price.”

One of the trustees smiled to the rest as Doc Yeager’s coat passed by outside the window. “Guess his luck ran out, boys, but, you know, I’m feeling that much luckier.”

The men went to the window and watched Doc Yeager drive off in his Studebaker, with Carl putt-putting behind through the snow.

They all sat back down and poured a round. “Your deal, Lester. Nice to have more room at the table.”

When Doc Yeager got to Carl’s farm, he pulled his bag out from behind the seat and discovered he didn’t have any forceps with him to pull Elbert out. Then he remembered leaving them in the kitchen after he’d pulled a baked potato out of the oven.

“More bother,” he grumbled. Carl hadn’t made it home yet on the Waterloo Boy, so Doc went out to Carl’s shed and helped himself to a posthole digger. It seemed a good bet. “If it can grab a slug of dirt and pull it out,” Doc reasoned, “it should work for Carl and Agnes’s baby.”

By the time Carl got home, Doc Yeager had the post hole digger warming up by the stove.

“You gonna pull my baby out with that!?” Carl asked.

“Either that or we can tie a rope to it and pull it out with the tractor.”

Agnes wasn’t pleased. Neither was Elbert, I guess, because he sure didn’t want to come out. But Doc Yeager stuck to his plan and grabbed Elbert’s head with the post hole digger. Doc was a snapping turtle once he latched onto a baby’s head. You could have shot the doc dead and his hands would still have held on, pulling.

Now Agnes’ brother had been a sailor on the Great Lakes and she screamed every oath she’d ever heard him use. Carl cussed out the doctor for forgetting his forceps and the high price of his fee. And the doctor cussed baby Elbert for his stubborn stupidity. After the baby was born they painted his room purple ’cause that was the color of the language he heard when he came out.

By the time Doc won his tug of war, Elbert’s head was shaped like a post. That was a hard way to get born, but it did make him the most interesting-looking kid in the county. Elbert was an only child. Agnes never wanted another. Carl was pissed off, too. Doc had bent the blades on his digger. He took the cost of a replacement out of the doctor’s fee.

Elbert’s thinking never seemed right. People looked at Elbert’s head, listened to him talk, and walked off muttering “dumb as a post.” Once he got a wrong idea into his head, you couldn’t bust it out with a jackhammer.

Elbert bought the 1948 edition of the Chicago Tribune that mistakenly announced Thomas Dewey’s win over Harry Truman. And he kept it. Throughout the rest of the Truman years, he insisted at some point during every conversation he had that Dewey was our real president and Truman was just a pretender. He kept on about it until Eisenhower was elected in 1952. Elbert liked Ike. The rest of county liked not hearing about Dewey.

People never blamed Doc Yeager for Elbert’s thinking. Not when they looked at the rest of Elbert’s family. Elbert’s lineage was like a line of poplar posts going back into prehistory. Not a good white oak post in the lot. Like my dad used to say, “A punky post may break left or it may break right, but it never stands plumb.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Mike's Family Home in "The Wilderness." Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Mike’s Family Home in “The Wilderness” in Autumn. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

 

Back View in Winter. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Back View in Winter. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Waking Up in a Dream

June 8, 2018

 

I worked for a year as a handyman at the power station of Bethlehem Steel in Burns Harbor, Indiana. One day the foreman sent three of us into the fan duct of a boiler that was offline for repairs. We entered through a small door on the side of the boiler. In order to see, we hung up a work light plugged into an extension cord that was plugged into a socket outside. Inside was a little ledge we could sit on before the duct became a shaft that dropped to the fan below. When the boiler was operating the fan blew air up through the duct we had entered into the furnace to feed oxygen to the flames.

Our job was to sit on the ledge and knock off as much scale as we could reach. Not an important job, but the boiler was offline and the boss didn’t have anything else to do with us that day. Certainly it was a better job than cleaning out fish remains from inside the reservoirs under the water pumps.

One of the other guys was doing the regular rounds on the working boilers. He stopped by to look in on us. Being a junior Einstein, like the rest of us, he realized what great fun it would be to close and block shut the only access door to the duct. In the process, however, he also moved the extension cord and loosened the plug in its socket. Our only source of light went out.

The three of us found ourselves in total darkness sitting on a ledge above a drop into a narrowing shaft leading to the blades of the boiler’s fan. In such a situation you must remain cool, joke about your entombment, and plan your revenge on Junior Einstein. I do thank God I was not alone. The voices of the other two helped orient me.

A half hour later Junior returned full of mirth. He swore he had not known the light had gone off. He said he was sorry. So we all went back to work. But with our eyes wide open, not for safety issues, but for a good chance for payback.

Two or three nights later, the dream began. It is always the same. I am trapped alone in total darkness. I can’t figure out where I am. I panic. Stumbling and bumping into things, I begin to explore. In the dark I come up against a wall. I grope my way along the wall trying to find a light switch or some way out. The dream ends when I find something familiar and realize where I am or when someone else in the house turns on a light to see what’s going on. Then I am revealed with my hands creeping along the wall of wherever it is I went to sleep. I am not sleepwalking. I am fully awake when I get out of bed, but the world around me in the dark room continues the world that was around me in the dream. I am awake but still in the dream.

It has been forty-seven years since I worked at that power station, but at times I still wake up in that dream. It’s strangeness has gotten me banned from staying at friends’ houses. Ever since the dream began, I have always tried to sleep with some source of light. Ordinary dreams can be very unsettling but when a dream crosses over into the waking world it is a living terror.

The dream is always with me, somewhere in my mind, waiting its next rebirth, waiting to slip out into my waking world. The dream lives on as a part of me, and we will remain together until we die.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer.

 

The Lighted Hall. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

The Lighted Hall. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Tiny Pink Flowers: A Very Short Story in Verse

June 1, 2018

 

He wakes up to her scream, a jolt and his legs
kicking. He sees the pink flowered sheet
spilling over him like lava falling off the bed.
Hundreds of printed flowers falling.

He watches the fingernails of his own hand
dig deep furrows across the bottom sheet.
His hand drops over the side. The walls,
the ceiling shimmer with light.

In the doorway, a red, hard-set face with a gun.
The gun jerks. He hears the second shot, her gasp.
He sees the blue steel hole fixed in a drifting halo.
He smells gun smoke. The mattress wobbles.

Her buttocks rise up beside the bed. The top sheet
folds together as she pulls it back around her body.
She lurches forward, pink flowers trailing behind.
The hands of the gunman tremble.

The revolver extends before him, held with
both hands, still aiming. His feet are apart.
Her shoulders are bare above the sheet. Red oozes
through pink. Her voice is faint — “Bobby?”

As she turns back, the man’s face twists into grief.
The pink flowered sheet is ribboned red.
Muscles tighten in her arms and legs.
She staggers. Her eyes open. Her lips part.

From outside down the hall, a cuckoo calls three.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Window Light. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Window Light. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

You Can’t Believe What Happened

May 29, 2018

 

You Can't Believe What Happened - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

You Can’t Believe What Happened – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

 

a) I wanted to see if I could use Granddad’s straight razor without having a strop to sharpen it. Apparently not.

b) Worst zit since high school. Could be flesh-eating bacteria!

c) Curling injury. I was sweeping so hard I lost my balance and poked myself with the end of the broom.

d) You should see the other side where the bullet came out!

e) I thought, I’ll just stand back and watch this bar fight. Then some guy throws wild and nails me with a bottle.

 

OK, I needed a prop to justify calling off work to go to the beach. Now I’m stuck with it.

Reconstructive Criticism: Not Just for Poets

May 23, 2018

 

When the Inquisitor comes you will be
in bed with your poems
He will summon you by banging pipes
in your dreams

His hands will knead your shoulders like clay
and he will speak as a just god 

     Who is the you of your poems?
     Why is he drowning in dreams?
     Why is he listening to stones? 

He will circumcise your excess with a pen

He will re-form your point of view
and when he leaves you will be he

 

First published in Mostly Maine.

 

At Palace Playland. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

At Palace Playland. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Bringing Home Our Dead: A Recovery Team Travels through Time

May 11, 2018


That morning, the rescue and recovery team’s hired truck left the dry wadi they had been following and wound up a trail to the top of a rocky ridge. Far off on the shrubby plains below they saw the skyline of the city called Tel-on-the-Plains.

“I don’t see any vehicles on the plains,” said Stan.

“No,” said Paul, “and by the end of the twentieth century, Tel must have had an electric line.”

Their driver stopped so his brother could climb up to man the machine gun mounted behind the truck’s cab.

Paul and his teammates were riding under a canvas in the truck’s bed. They were tired and sore from two days of bad shocks and the desert heat. The four men strapped on their sidearms as the driver let out the clutch and the truck descended onto the plains.

“I want this to be quick in and quick out!” announced Stan.

Paul looked closely at Stan. Not just his jaw was set. All the muscles in his body were tight. Stan reminded him of the drawn whipcord on a crossbow. He remembered the ones their escorts had used during the team’s mission to Genoa. Stan was intent on his goal and eager to act. He had always been that way, even when they were cadets.

Steve, the team’s linguist, looked old and tired. He was. This was his last mission before retirement. He was also sad, with the sadness of a man who has lost too many friends over too many years.

The fourth man, Andrew, was new to the team. He had been transferred into Rescue and Recovery from Personnel Records, to cover losses. He was a big guy and very fit, but the way he pulled in his arms and legs said he did not want to be there. He already had the start of a twitching tick below his left eye.

While his teammates studied the distant city, Paul closed his eyes to relax.

#

It was late November and just after dark. Paul’s parents led him, each taking a hand into the boarded-up house where his grandmother was waiting.

“You will be safe here,” his father told him.

The house had no electricity, no heat. Paul’s grandmother patted his head. Paul knew from her touch she was sick.

“We will come back when we can,” Paul’s mother told him. “No matter what happens, we love you, Paul.” His mother and father both hugged him goodbye, then hurried out to their car.

“I still have some food,” his grandmother reassured him.

Paul watched his parents’ car slip away through the dark with its lights off. He knew he would never see them, never again.

#

As the team’s truck approached Tel, it passed through cluster after cluster of low mounds, the tombs of Tel’s ancient dead. From among the mounds the team could not see the city. But Paul felt the presence of Tel’s dead in their tombs as little waves of pressure washing over him. Waves from lives lived long ago. The waves from these buried dead seemed like faint murmurs of content.

The little waves reminded Paul of very different waves. On a mission to the Dutch East Indies in 1883, the team had experienced the eruption and final explosion of Krakatoa. That explosion was the loudest sound humans have ever experienced. But it was not the massive explosion he remembered most. It was the tiny human waves he had felt among the final ripples from Krakatoa’s explosion. Little waves of fear and pain from thousands upon thousands of lost lives. A murmur of anguished death and soul’s discontent.

Krakatoa’s explosion continued below human hearing as a pressure wave in the air, moving silently around and around the earth three and a half times. Continuing after 100,000 people of the Indonesian coastline had tried to flee inland. After they had been caught, swallowed and drowned by the tsunamis. After their bodies had been left in trees or buried under wreckage or pulled back out to sea by the retreating flood.

The displaced dead. Left to float for months among the hungry gulls and the tsunamis’ debris. Only 36,000 people were identified in history. The rest were lost. Whole villages dead and scattered, unnamed, forgotten. The uncounted dead, never to be brought home.

Now, as they left the mounds, the city of Tel grew before them behind its ten-foot stone wall. Beyond the wall, they saw rows of adobe buildings rising up to the top of the steeply sloping tel. Beneath the mound on which the current buildings sat, Paul could feel the layered ruins upon ruins of the city’s ancient past. Broken stones, crumbled adobe, rotted wood. Layer on layer down to the holes for the posts that once supported the nomadic founders’ tents. The team’s driver stopped before the narrow gates. As the team’s intuitive, Paul was overwhelmed by the city’s heaviness and its age, and its otherness. He felt no kindred thoughts or feelings.

Stan, Andrew, and Paul jumped out and helped Steve climb over the truck’s gate. The four men stretched, and looked around. Their driver propped up the truck’s rusty hood with his baton and shifted his rifle back on his shoulder to look inside. His brother stayed with the machine gun. From his position behind the gun, the brother looked down at the faint distortions in the air that he knew to be the four men. Then he spit out his spent khat and muttered something in a local dialect of Arabic that Paul could not understand.

Steve shuddered and looked away. Already at 10 a.m. the sand under the men’s boots was as hot as the truck’s smoking manifold. No one approached them or spoke or even looked at them. All around them, the people of Tel were living a normal day. The team’s armed arrival in their world an apparent non-event.

#

When his grandmother returned from the city, Paul was waiting at the door. Christmas had almost come and it was snowing. She looked at him and she knew that he knew.

“Yes, Paul, your mother and father have passed on. I am so sorry, son! They wanted to find a new home and come back for you, but these are dangerous times.”

#

Moving past the men and in or out of the city were groups of half-starved donkeys and camels driven by tall, thin people with wrapped faces. An intense babel of human and animal voices mixed with the buzzing of flies.

“Shit!” said Stan, “This place doesn’t even look like the right century. It seems to be the right place. It could be the right reality. But it sure isn’t 1995.”

Andrew gave Stan a sick-looking smile. “Well, Stan, you definitely picked the wrong costume for the ball.” Andrew looked back into the bed of the truck. Paul knew he wanted to hop back in and leave.

Stan scowled. “What’s your read, Paul?”

“No kindred thoughts or feelings. If our people are here, we are probably doing pure recovery.”

“They could have put themselves into a dreamless trance,” said Steve.

“Maybe, Steve,” said Stan. “Why aren’t these people responding to the truck’s presence?”

“If we have changed times,” said Paul, “the encapsulizer in your backpack will have encapsuled the truck and the two brothers in their base reality and time, just as it did us when we came to their reality in 1995. The people of Tel will see barely a trace of them, just as the brothers can barely see a trace of us without a filter.”

“But why did the time change?” demanded Andrew. “And if it is no longer 1995 where we are now, how do we get back to our temporary bridge home!?” Andrew’s eye was twitching like an earthworm attacked by ants.

“We’ll deal with de-capsulating ourselves when we make it out of here!” barked Stan. “We have a recovery to complete. Having an invisible truck will only make it easier.”

It had been a year in Pre-Event time since the sudden onset of spacetime turbulence had cut off all travel and communication between Op Support and its embedded operations in alternate realities. The rescue and recovery teams were quickly assembled and began their work. But forming temporary bridges to other worlds and times was difficult and the results were uncertain. The intelligence outpost at Tel was already distressed by unexplained time anomalies before the turbulence arrived. With little chance of the outpost’s survival, Op Planning had given it a low priority during triage.

“Janet’s carrier transmission stopped months ago,” Andrew said. “It could take all day to find the right adobe from just this hologram.” He waved the hologram at the maze of buildings before them, “What is going to make this building even recognizable? We can’t look for Janet’s Kawasaki parked in front!”

The other men studied the image of the station house, circa 1995, and turned it through its full range. Then they looked at the world around them.

“We know it was near the city’s center in 1995, on a plaza,” said Steve.

“The station house would look the same to us,” Paul said, “if its encapsulizer is still working. The people of Tel can’t see it so it should be empty.”

“But everything around it could morph completely through time,” said Andrew. “The plaza might even be gone!”

“Stop whining, Andrew!” said Stan. “Let’s go find the damned building.”

The four men adjusted their packs and holsters and walked off on foot.

#

“Grandma?” Paul asked, “can we go to see Mom and Dad, like we did Granddad?”

“No, too many are dying, Paul. No one cares for the dead.”

“We should bring them home.”

“They are in heaven. They are thinking of you, but they cannot come back. Someday we will all gather in heaven, Paul. Your parents. Granddad. My parents too. All of us will finally be home.”

Paul again followed his parents’ car with his mind, but his search ended with a burned out shell in a snow-covered and empty lot. His mind did not reach heaven.

#

Adobe brick walls crowded in on narrow streets. No one looked at the men or swerved aside. Paul felt out of place but almost invisible.  Still he was sure the people of Tel were watching their traces, listening even as they seemed only to chat of their lives.

“Steve!” said Stan, glaring at the people around him. “What is all this chatter?”

“Don’t know. They could be speaking an obscure dialect of Arabic I haven’t encountered. It sounds more like an older Aramaic language. I don’t see any sign of a mosque.”

#

“God and heaven, Grandma, do they really exist?”

“They must exist, Paul. Otherwise, life would be too terrible.”

#

At times Paul caught glimpses of people sniffing like dogs at the team from around corners and through open windows. Neither Stan nor Steve noticed. Andrew did. Paul could see Andrew’s hands trembling.


The four men followed the flow of overloaded animals and people for an hour until they found a side street that emptied through a slit into a crowded plaza.

At the far end, Stan spotted a dark space between two jutting buildings. Set well back in the dark was a smaller building. “That looks like the place.”

They walked into the shadow and looked around. Paul noticed it felt less hot and was almost quiet.

The men walked up to the door. Steve had worked with Janet years before. He stepped forward and knocked hopefully at the door, then opened it part way. The air in the opening was cool as a refrigerator’s. He spoke softly into the darkness, “Janet?”

Stan stepped up and kicked the door open. “Janet!”

They saw no lights, no windows. No one answered. Just silence, and a stale, earthy smell. Paul took a flashlight from his pack and they all stepped inside. Andrew closed the door. It was actually cold.

Against the far wall a seated figure leaned stiffly on a pile of long bags. “Janet?” Steve asked, “are you sick?”

Stan walked up with a light. “Shit,” he mumbled. She was dead. She had been dead a long time. The skin looked mummified. Andrew set up a portable lamp from his pack. Paul noticed a group of flies clustered on the ceiling above the bags. They must have been resting, holding vigil in that cold darkness long before the men arrived. Now they woke up with the fresh air and the light. They began circling.

#

Paul and his grandmother were lying next to each other under all their blankets and clothing. It was a still, clear January night and very cold. Paul’s grandmother was snoring, but Paul was shivering and still wide awake.

“Paul?” He heard his mother’s voice and he looked around the room. It was her voice exactly. The tone had been full of concern. But he could see nothing, and he heard nothing more.

#

The men opened the twelve bags and found the others wrapped inside. Some had been sent shortly before Janet arrived. The men knew them. Of the older ones they knew nothing. They were all mummified. Andrew scanned their chip implants. Then Paul and Steve wrapped Janet like the others and zipped her in a bag from Steve’s pack. Stan removed the memory from the station’s transmitter for analysis.

“We need to get out now!” said Andrew. “Our scent is already in the air. It is probably drifting everywhere.”

“We have a job to do,” said Stan.

“Sure,” said Andrew, “but, Stan, time is unstable here. And we don’t know why!”

Paul heard the louder buzzing of the flies. Thirteen people were a lot to bring back. It would be very difficult with only one truck and a temporary bridge home. But they needed to do it. They couldn’t find peace here among the people of Tel. Paul looked up to find Steve watching him.

Steve seemed to be reading his thoughts, and he nodded.

At one end of the room, a cold draft blew out of the open end of a four-foot titanium tube. Paul studied the entry tube that only last year had been the mouth of the station’s traversable bridge to home. Then the spacetime turbulence had reached earth and destroyed all fixed bridges through spacetime. Now the tube was just a hole that led to a broken link opening somewhere far away into what felt like a frozen Icelandic version of Hell. Faint cracking sounds could be heard through the conduit, like the movement of ice. The cold draft passed through the dark room like a wind in a cave.

“We’ll get both gurneys from the truck,” said Stan. “We can transport all of them out of here before sunset and start them on their way to those Dr. Frankensteins at Restoration Services.”

“They do need to come home,” sighed Steve.

“Right, Steve. You can have Janet back for your retirement dinner.”

Yes, Paul thought, Restoration Services might restore life to some of these mummies. They would probably succeed in giving their bodies new life, in making them useful workers again. They could even restore their characteristic thoughts and feelings from their mental profiles, and reload their memories from backups of their mind data in Personnel Records. But talking to restored people was never the same. It was like talking to an AI avatar. Something essential was missing. The important thing, Paul thought, was to bring all of them home.

The four men trudged back through streets empty in the midday sun. Hungry dogs came out from under carts and followed Andrew at a distance. He kept looking back at them and mumbling.

“Where did everyone go?” asked Steve.

“It’s hot out!” barked Stan. “Haven’t you noticed?”

“Yes,” said Paul, “but I don’t even hear their chatter in the buildings.”

“The truck is gone!” shouted Andrew.

Not even its tracks were left in the sand. A searing wind blew in across the desert and it drew the moisture from their skin. They were all suddenly weak. Steve collapsed to his knees, vomiting in the sand.

“The truck didn’t have an encapsulizer,” said Paul. “It was only encapsuled for the time we arrived. If we have shifted time again, it is still back when we left it. And we have been re-encapsuled for a new time.”

“We have to get out!” said Andrew. “We can grab some camels and ride back along the wadi.”

“You can’t ride a camel,” said Stan.

“I’ll try!”

“Not in this wind!”

“We will have to return to the station house,” said Paul.

“Shit!” said Stan. “That’s enough puking, Steve. Let’s go!”

#

That morning Paul’s grandmother had walked off through the snow to find help in the city. Paul was afraid. All the nerves of his body tingled in the cold. By sunset she had not returned nor did she return that night.

In the morning Paul put on all his clothes and pulled out the plastic toboggan sled he had found in the shed. He followed his grandmother’s tracks down the road. The tracks stopped by an orchard and she was sitting there against a tree.

“Grandma?” Paul said, even though he knew she could not speak. Paul tugged her frozen body onto the sled and pulled her back to the house.

#

They saw, they heard no people, no animals in the streets. Just wind. And, in sheltered spots, they saw ghost lines rising through the air, shimmering from the heat. Sand had blown around the doors and in through the broken windows. Everywhere outside lay bleached, weathered carts and tools and bones. Inside, dirt-covered tables and chairs had collapsed onto floors in rooms long abandoned to shadows.

Back inside the station, Paul could hear sharp breaking sounds through the conduit. The air suddenly became much colder and a few gusts of snow blew into the room. His mind followed the sounds back to their source. A time fault! Breaks in the local fabric of spacetime could shift the mouth of the conduit in time. Such local stresses must have developed ahead of the main event. They would have been the source of the time anomalies that vexed the outpost before the general turbulence arrived.

The four men sat down and huddled against the bundles in the cold. Steve looked sick and sad. Andrew looked blank, almost comatose. Stan entered the team’s final status report. He had no way to send it home, but he locked on the transmitter’s carrier signal to serve as a beacon should anyone come looking for them. Despite the cold, the flies circled and bumped against them in the wind. Paul counted thirteen flies. Their combined buzzing was a chaos of frantic little voices.

Op Support might send another recovery team, Paul thought, if their algorithms could relocate this reality of Tel in time. If they came, the transmitter’s carrier wave would help locate the station house, but it would only last a few months.

“What does that mean?” asked Stan. The display on the encapsulizer read “Wait Mode Level 5.” They had all heard of Wait Mode, but none of them had experienced its levels.

#

“He’s skinny but he seems healthy, and he talks intelligently for a kid his age.”

As he studied Paul, the captain rubbed the arm above his missing hand.

“He may have a gift. We’ll keep this boy alive,” he told the other officers. “Implant an I.D. chip and set up a cot for him among our cadets.”

#

All they could do was wait in the cold and dark. They must wait to be brought home.

Paul’s tongue was already dry as it moved in and out of his mouth. He tried chasing flakes of snow through the air, but the few he caught didn’t help. Paul’s eyes ached as they swerved about the room and then came to rest looking down on the men from the ceiling. Sixteen flies had settled around him on the ceiling, and below four leaning figures were slumped among the bags.

I must be inside Wait Mode, Paul thought. All the flies around him had gone still.

Wait. We wait on the floor and on the ceiling. It is all we can do … but we are very dry and cold.

This dark is so very cold.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Desert Scene circa 1960. Photo by Bernie Smetzer.

Desert Scene circa 1960. Photo by Bernie Smetzer.

A Quiet Man: Someone You May Know

May 4, 2018

 

He’s somewhere with you in a crowd
walking along
perhaps beside you

thinking 

What the doctor gave him
turned his urine orange

If he were a braggart 

      He could startle old men in courthouse johns
      He could tell weeping women he has given them
            disease
      Believers could come to him to bathe and be
            healed 

But he is a quiet man
He will piss in pop bottles
to leave on the steps 

for your children

 

First published in Cottonwood Review’s Open House.

 

Rock City in Mid 1950s - Photo by Bernie Smetzer

Rock City in mid 1950s. Photo by Bernie Smetzer

Old Man of the Road

April 27, 2018

 

At dusk, an old man walks by these country houses.
Sometimes, as children lie in bed, they hear
the distant crunch of his feet in gravel.  Over
and over, but muffled, of course, out on the road.
Impossible to hear except on a warm spring night
when the house is quiet and the windows open
and the summer insects are yet to be born.
Then sometimes again in Indian summer. 

I used to hear his footsteps on our road.
Old man of evening.  Old man of ragged clothing.
I imagined him walking into the dark, never stopping,
but glancing sometimes at my window, wondering
what small child lived there.

 

First published in Kansas Quarterly.

 

Remains of Farm Wagon Behind Our House - photo by Mike Smetzer

Remains of Farm Wagon Behind My Parents’ House – photo by Mike Smetzer