Archive for the ‘Short Short Stories / Flash Fiction’ Category

Done with Ralph

July 11, 2017

 

Where I meet Ralph?
In my world, before I immigrate.
You listen, officer. I tell you.
My earth good world once.
Sweet flowers. Sweet people.
Like this earth.
Everything go wrong.…

Wild, biting dogs run through streets.
Every day. All kinds of dogs.
Crazy birds, bats drop from sky.
“No problem,” Zosh say,
“just look up and watch your feet.”

Zosh and me, we sixteen.
Zosh, he big, ugly, nasty.
Never bathe.
Stuff grow on Zosh
like moss on rotten log.

People tell me,
“You too small, boy.
You too cute to live.”
So I hang with Zosh.

Zosh? No ask about Zosh.
He not immigrate. Never meet Ralph.
Zosh friend back then.…
You ask where I meet Ralph.
I tell where we meet.
We meet in my world.
You listen.…

When I not with Zosh,
I watch men close.
Sharp eyes. I see souls.
I know when to run.
I run fast, too.
I run and dodge
and stay on feet.
I still alive.

No, no.
Soul not just in eyes.
I see souls in way people stand, move, sleep.
From anywhere. From behind in dark.…
Sure. Right now. I see you.
You immigration officer
but you straight-up, cool guy.
So we talk.…

Nights it rain
I stay inside with others.
Plenty boarded-up wrecks.
Apartments. Stores. Offices.
Spirits move like drafts
through those rooms.
The dead!
I hate dead!

All of them.
My parents. My sister.
Let them move along to hell!
We done with them!

Maybe you not know dead.…

When dead touch you,
ice shoot up spine.
It take hours to warm up.

I not see dead coming.
Only feel them,
and not tell from where.
Which way to run?
Then that chill!

Zosh say dead want something.
I thinking stake through heart!

Funeral? Maybe funeral help.
We not have time.…

Every morning, fresh kills.
We chuck bodies out of
apartments, hallways, alleys.
Food for dogs!
They not stink up our space.
But chills linger.

I know dead by chill sometimes,
if they someone I fight or fuck.
Not much there for living.
Nothing for dead.
But chills stay.

I get out.
Needy dumbass take me out.
I spot him first time through.
I not see him before
and I watching.

Yeah, Ralph.…

Nice clothes. Hot flycar!
I get in off those streets
and Ralph fly me out.
We go to your earth camp.
Nothing back there I want.
Nobody neither.

Ralph safe.
Just tame dog sniffing round.
You not like his touch
but it candy after chill’s.
It get me out.

No. Not see him, maybe, five months.
No ask me where he go. We bust up.
He move along. Cold son of bitch!…

Yeah, I got his flycar.
He not need it. Sweet ride!…
No. I not keep that place. Too cold.
Got my own place. Snug. No drafts.
I trade fridge for bigger stove. It nice.…

Yeah, it hot for this coat.
People say I wear too much clothes.
Zosh say, you wear your clothes,
you know no one else is.…

Look for Ralph?! Not till I miss him!…
Hey! No ask me find Ralph!
You officers come round, ask questions.
I give something for reports. Me good citizen.
But I chuck Ralph out.
He not sweet as he smell.
I done with Ralph!…

Sure, I OK.
I learn English. I get job. Good job.
Everything fine.
Come from my world, not much trouble you.
I just go nowhere I feel chill.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Discussion

This story is cross-genre oddity. It is a science fiction story set in an alternate reality where travel and immigration between parallel universes are possible. It is also a ghost story, a sexual exploitation story, and possibly a murder story. And, of course, it is in verse.

Like “Skunky’s Steel Mill Story,” which was published here in June, “Done with Ralph” is a short short story or flash fiction written using the line structure of verse. Written out as prose, verse fiction reads like concentrated prose fiction. But the line breaks add intensity and emphasis that make the story more powerful. That said, verse structure simply will not work for most fiction. Even if you have a story that would benefit from verse, simply chopping up the prose to create lines will produce an embarrassment. Recasting a story as verse requires a complete line-by-line revision.

 

Swimmers, Acrylic Painting on wood by Mike Smetzer

Swimmers, Acrylic Painting on wood by Mike Smetzer

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Skunky’s Steel Mill Story: A Verse Fiction

June 24, 2017

 

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

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

June 11, 2017

 

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

Zeke & Jezzy Buy Mother’s and Father’s Day Gifts

May 14, 2017

A couple days ago Uncle Ezekiel decided to give his wife Jezebella some sipping whisky for Mother’s Day. She don’t drink whisky, but Aunt Jezzy tells folks: “When old Zeke falls asleep early and stops badgering me, that’s the sweetest gift I ever get in life.” So he figured she’d be happy.

Today I got a phone call from Zeke. Aunt Jezzy had looked at the whisky awhile and then she’d looked at Zeke awhile. “Why thank you, Zeke.” Then she sat back in her chair. “You know, I’ve been thinking about what a wife can do for a husband like you. I think I’ve now decided what to give you for Father’s Day. It’s a brand-new, expensive suit.”

“Now Jezzy! I haven’t worn a suit but once in my life and that was when we got married. And I borrowed that one.”

“Well, you’ll need a suit to wear when they lay you to rest. And you can’t borrow it.”

“No, I guess not.”

“I’ve decided on the suit men wear in the Forest Service. I think you’ll be more comfortable in it.”

“What kind of suit do they wear in the Forest Service?”

“Fireproof.”

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer