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

How I Died Like a Dork

July 13, 2018

It’s Sunday night, February 1st, just before closing. Of course, I’m stuck at the supermarket finishing my duties as a Sanitary Maintenance associate (i.e. janitor). I take the last compost barrel out of the produce department. It’s overloaded. Over-ripe melons from Florida. Moldy potatoes from Aroostook County. Along with the usual fruit and vegetable waste. The lid won’t even close. These barrels are on wheels, thank God, but they are industrial sized: 95 gallons. This one easily weighs five hundred pounds.

The two jokers who are supposed to close produce have whined to the EOM until he finally let them go early. So I can’t even give them shit about overloading the barrel.  Why do they want to go home early anyway? Neither one has had a date since summer. They’re just going home to play games. They live with their moms, for Christ’s sake!

I wheel the monster barrel through the sales floor to the back room. Two guys from the night crew are there already breaking down the night’s load. Some kid and a guy in his forties. Classic grunge more than drowns out the Muzak that will play all night on the sales floor. These guys are ripping boxes off palettes and building U-boats, but you’d think they were plugging leaks in the last dike separating an ice-dammed river and their family’s trailer. Normal humans just don’t move that fast — not from drinking Dunkin’s coffee.

The older guy is telling stories about harpooning that night-crew girl who just got fired for stealing. Stealing in plain view! Like we didn’t all see those Loss Prevention geeks up on ladders installing new cameras. They didn’t even want to catch anyone. They know we all steal when we get a chance. They just wanted to scare us into thinking they were watching so many angles we didn’t have a play. And why is this guy bragging about doing her anyway? The girl’s got a face like a hungry gerbil!

Then the young guy starts up with all the stuff he thinks he’s done but really just watched on Pornhub. I block open the back door and start the compost barrel down the icy ramp off the loading dock. Yeah, I should have salted the ice and chipped the worst of it off before I went down. But it was closing time, damn it, and I had had it with all these dickheads I work with. And our customers! Most of them smell like they wandered off from some nursing home. Without changing their diapers! You should try cleaning the toilets in this place! I’m out of here for good as soon as I pay off my court costs and attorney fees. Until then, come 9 p.m., I’m trucking home for beer.

So, of course, that monster compost barrel gets away from me on the ice. I try to hold it back, like a dork, because I don’t want to stay and shovel up a mess at the bottom. And, yeah sure, maybe I forget for a moment I’m not the Incredible Hulk.  The barrel and I start sliding, knocking down the empty milk crates stacked along the inside of the ramp.

Then the barrel spins back around and slams me hard against the iron railing on the outside of the ramp. I must have broken some ribs right then! That’s when I lost my footing and the compost barrel tipped over. Last thing I remember I’m lying on the ice at the bottom of the ramp with the monster barrel on top of my chest and a generous pillow of rotten vegetable matter all around and over my head.

Then it’s like I’m in some woo-woo movie.  I’m watching the back room from outside my body. I know that stuff’s corny on the screen. But when it happens to you, it’s really creepy! The night crew guys finally realize they’re cold. Of course, with all their lying about deep throat and double penetration, my presence didn’t even register when I went through the back room. Not that it would have been much different if they’d been singing hymns.

Being a maintenance associate puts you down so low the other associates don’t even see you crawling along. I’m just an ant moving through the dirt on the floor. We’re socially invisible – until they happen to look down at the bottom of their shoes! “Eww! What was that?”

Anyway, the older guy just walks over and he shuts the door.

Back on the sales floor, the EOM assumes I must have left since it’s now past closing time, and, of course, he’s in a hurry to go home himself. So he herds the last customers and the evening crew out the exit door and locks up the front of the store for the night. Crap! Am I screwed! Worse than that rodent-faced girl when they escorted her to the Security Room to wait for the police.

The next morning the receiver comes in early to open the back room for the milk delivery. I’m still hanging around in the astral plane looking down at myself when he finds me, stiff and cold and frozen into the rotten vegetables from that barrel. He pages the night crew chief, and they talk about me for a while. None too politely! And they make some jokes about whether they should chip me out with the ice chipper or go find a cutting torch.

They finally wake up the store manager at home and he says call the cops. The cops just shrug and call in the bone wagon.

Those bone-wagon guys are not happy they have to deal with this frozen mess, but eventually they get me out without too much salad stuck on my face. I tune out most of what follows and go off flying my astral plane with Timothy Leary. Yeah, Leary’s still out there in space. Pretty mellow guy, really. More like a computer geek than I would have thought.

So I miss the autopsy. Fine with me. I hated dissection in high school. Finally some self-important ass in a color-coordinated suit, shirt and tie signs me over to the funeral industry as their latest item of commerce.

Next stop my funeral. I rate a few quick but dramatic tears from some of the chronically emotional girls that work the front end. I only know a few of their names. But I know they are only here to escape working the registers. Anyway, they all have a good cry. The store manager and assistant manager are there in a corner. They are talking quietly about how much they can milk out of the wine vendors for letting them set up promotional displays in the prime spots. OK. Hell, everybody needs extra money.

And I hear my half brother bragging to everyone how he could have built a box for me out of oak-veneer boards salvaged from old desks. Without wasting all that life insurance money. You know, it is the thought that counts, Bro!

Then it’s lights out for my astral body, and I’m six feet down in a water-tight cooler waiting my last judgment. Which it turns out is not going to happen as a big cattle call at the end of time but on a first-come-first-served basis.  So step right up, sir. Saint Peter hops through these judgments faster than a flea in a kennel.

So next thing I know I’m standing like a job applicant in my best-and-only suit in front of this big red-hot metal desk in hell. Just where Brother Hardbottom warned me I was going when I was twelve. I can’t believe that pious ass got this one right!

Hell is a stinking mess with pits of burning sulfur roiling out fumes that burn your lungs when you breathe. Drawn and quartered criminals from Merry Olde England are lying around where their parts were dumped centuries ago. Their quartered bodies are decomposed but still squirming, struggling to get back together. The place is filthy with slobbering demons feeding on the juicy innards of the screaming damned. Their entertainment is creating widening pools of blood, drool and gore.

The space in front of the devil’s desk is crowded with foul-smelling and desperate people. I know most of us don’t worry much about hell while we are alive, but the devil’s desk is where we meet our eternal punishment face to face. It pretty much scares the shit out of all of us. You can’t avoid stepping in it!

The devil is sitting at his desk reading my file. He’s yawning, eating a bagel, and trying to ignore the stink and noise. Strikes me he has a strong resemblance to Brother Hardbottom. Anyway, he couldn’t be more bored. Suddenly he looks up at me. And, yes, his eyes really do burn like fiery coals.

“Mr. Smetzer!” he says with a widening smile, “I see you’ve worked Sanitary Maintenance.”

MY END

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

The Journey Down. Photo by Bernie Smetzer.

The Journey Down. Photo by Bernie Smetzer.

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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.

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.

The First Visit: A Story of the Early Sixties

January 24, 2018

 

Paul was sitting alone in his apartment over the Rexall where he worked. As he had finished supper, Paul had listened on the radio to Jack Kennedy declare support for President Diem and liberty in Indochina. Now he was half listening to a radio episode of Gunsmoke. Paul had a lonely life. The brutal realities of the Cold War and life in the Old West were unlikely to cheer him up. But he was very happy. Aunt Emma, his last remaining relative, had finally died.

Her death itself did not make him happy. He had liked Emma, a bit. But Paul’s aunt had left him enough money to buy new clothes, rent an apartment with a private bath, and buy a new Studebaker Lark convertible. He was signing the lease on the apartment tomorrow morning, and it wasn’t over the Rexall where he worked. He was talking to the Studebaker dealer tomorrow afternoon. By next week Paul’s friends might start to respect him.

Paul finally had enough money to live. People said he should be happy he wasn’t still a stock boy, but Paul knew he had no future standing behind a soda fountain in a drugstore. Jerking sodas is cool when you’re eighteen, but not when you’re thirty-two. Today the bank had transferred the funds for a new life into Paul’s new personal checking account. Paul was very happy indeed.

Paul was sipping Champale when he heard heavy footsteps on his stairs. Since he had the only apartment at the top of stairs, he got up to answer the knock he expected. But before he got there, both the latch and the bolt lock released themselves. The door swung in.

A muscular arm ran up from the door knob into the shadows above the door frame. Only the chest and lower body could be seen behind the opening door. Then the shoulders dropped as the giant ducked his broad face under the door frame and strode into the room. The giant stretched himself to full height, straightened his sharkskin suit, and looked around with satisfaction.

Paul stepped back. “What do you want?”

Turning, the giant folded his arms and smiled down at Paul. His eyes were a warm brown, and his smile seemed good humored. Paul watched him reach up and tease a corner of his dark mustache.

“I want your money, Sonny Boy.”

“What?”

“Come on. Fork it over, Paul. Everything you’ve got.”

“I only have ten dollars, and change. Honest.”

The giant cupped both hands and stuck them down below Paul’s chin, as if to catch the jackpot from a slot machine. Paul emptied the bills out of his wallet, Then dropped his change into the giant’s hands. His money seemed so small in those hands.

“That’s all I’ve got.”

The giant moved about the apartment, dumping out drawers and occasionally pocketing small objects. He didn’t even glance at Paul. But once, as he passed, he bent down, parted Paul’s hair quiff, and looked inside. “Any gold in here?” Then he laughed and patted Paul’s head.

The giant pulled a book of counter checks from his pocket and handed it to Paul. “Now write me a check. Make it for the amount in that rockin’ new checking account of yours. I’ll go by your bank when it opens and cash it.”

“I only make minimum wage.”

The giant laughed. “Now put down what’s in your account, Paul. And don’t you forget what your sweet auntie left you.”

How could he know? Paul opened the book and found dozens of signed checks, each drawn on a different account. He found many names he knew. John Dickens, the pharmacist. His landlord, Mr. Ladd. Patty Schmidt, who worked beside him at the soda fountain. Even Rex Masters, the Chief of Police! Finally he found a blank check. His name, bank and account number were already printed in.

“Put it down as a visitation fee.”

Paul saw a chance for delay. He wrote down seven dollars more than what was in his account. In the morning, his bank would refuse the check and he would have time to find help. Surely someone would help! Paul handed back the book, but he couldn’t look into those brown eyes. All he could see was the giant’s mustache, and a spreading smile.

“That will do for now, Sonny Boy.”

Paul followed the giant to the door. He listened to the steps going down the stairs, so unhurried, so sure.  He didn’t know who could help. Half the people he knew were in that book. He leaned against the sides of the open door. The radio inside his apartment had moved on to Sam Cooke singing “Wonderful World.”

Then the giant reappeared as a shadow that filled up the lower hallway and moved to the foot of the stairs. As he started back up, a step creaked and Paul felt hot urine rushing down his leg. The giant paused near the top to study the puddle still forming around Paul’s feet.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I have a bit of trouble with young folks. They don’t respect me when I first visit. But you will respect me, Paul. And we will have a long life together. Tomorrow I will give this check to the teller and watch it bounce. Then you will cover the amount, and more.”

The giant looked up and Paul saw that his eyes were blue. His face still seemed the same, all but those eyes. Such a bright blue! Paul blinked and saw that the giant’s mustache had turned white. Paul could no longer feel his shoulder against the doorjamb or even the wetness of his pants.

The giant slid Paul’s Gruen watch off his wrist. “Ten p.m. already, Sonny Boy,” he sighed, dropping the watch into his pocket, “and I have so many people like you to visit.”

The giant guided Paul back into his apartment. Then he gently shut the door.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

1960 Studebaker Lark Regal Convertible - cars on line

1960 Studebaker Lark Regal Convertible – Cars On Line

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

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