Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ 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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Phil’s Funeral: A Short Story Set in South Portland, Maine

July 6, 2018

 

I asked for yesterday off at the grocery here in South Portland, Maine. I wanted to drive a small troupe of our associates up to a mid-morning funeral in a little community north of Portland. The deceased was one of our long-time grocery clerks, so the store was supportive. We took Methuselah, the Shoestring Chapel’s van. Some of our associates show up at the Chapel off and on, and I volunteer there, as sort of the lay minister and custodian. It’s a pretty informal place. You don’t have to believe anything in particular to come. You don’t have to believe anything to come.

Phil was only in his late fifties. He was a reliable worker, but tight assed and tight lipped. When he did say something, it wasn’t pretty. He’d tell you loud and clear if you screwed up or you were in his way.

“Movvve it!”

I only saw Phil smile once. Some new kid was standing on the end of an empty U-boat yacking. Phil pushed the boat from behind because it was in his way. The kid fell backwards onto the boat with a huge bang. He didn’t get hurt much and his friends had a big laugh.

We all knew Phil was in constant pain from his swollen legs. Suffering makes most people self-centered and angry. You have to cut them slack. A couple months ago his congestive heart disease turned really ugly, and so did his temper. It got harder to forgive Phil. God knows, he never said he was sorry. Phil took a medical leave from work. No one thought he would come back. No one wanted him back.

Seven of us associates made the trip to Phil’s funeral. Trudy, Wes, and me from center store. Three girls from the front end. And Bob from the deli. Bob had gone to high school with Phil. The girls didn’t know Phil well but wanted to escape the front end for a day. I was surprised Trudy wanted to go. Phil was especially caustic towards her. And she gave it right back.

“Trudy, this will be a good chance to make peace with Phil,” I told her.

“Peace hell! I just want to see the S.O.B. flat on his back with his lips sewn shut.”

“Trudy!”

“OK, Mike. I didn’t like him. I never liked him. But I’ll be polite and see him off on his way to wherever. God knows he’s been a presence in our lives.”

“Don’t kick his coffin, Trudy,” laughed Wes, “Sewn lips or not, he might sit up and rip you a new one.”

It seemed like a good time to shift topics. “OK, Phil wasn’t friendly at work,” I offered, “but he was human. Everyone has good points. Phil must have cared about someone. Bob, you knew Phil growing up. What do you remember good about him?”

Bob thought for a while. “Well, I was in classes with Phil, but I never met his family. He told me he had a dog he took care of, but it ran off to the neighbors.”

The front end girls were texting and giggling about their friends’ messages. I interrupted them. “What do you girls remember about Phil?”

One of the girls looked up. “I remember Phil only had two pairs of pants.”

Wes spoke up. “I remember Phil liked cretons spread on biscuits.”

“Was Phil French?” I asked.

“No. Don’t think so,” said Wes.

I couldn’t think of anything winning about Phil either. He did his work but he didn’t give anything extra. He never seemed to take any pleasure in what he accomplished. I’d tried to chat with Phil a few times to loosen him up and maybe lead him to have a little fellowship with the other associates at work, but all I got were one-word answers, or sometimes just a grunt.

Phil had gotten mean after he got sick, but he had never been friendly. I figured when we arrived at the viewing we could talk with Phil’s family and friends. They could tell us something about what he was really like. Away from work. Maybe his family would talk about things they remembered. Phil’s warmer moments and what he was like as a boy. I wanted to meet Phil’s old friends.

We had read online that there would be an hour visitation ahead of the funeral service, followed by the burial at a nearby cemetery. I drove up and parked Methuselah on the street in front of the funeral home.

“Hey!” said a funeral assistant. “Can you park that thing farther down the street?” I let the others out and moved the van onto the next block. The guy was still gesturing to go farther, so I parked all the way at the end of that block. The guy stared at me walking back. Well, I see his point. We custom painted Methuselah ourselves, and it does have a lot of upbeat messages and colorful artwork. Looks a little off next to a black limo. And Methuselah smokes quite a bit from a bad gasket. Smokes under the hood even after the engine is off.

The funeral parlor was a grand old building on Main Street. Pretty nicely kept up. Phil’s brother and sister were there along with Phil’s nieces and nephews and a bunch of their kids. I didn’t see any friends. Just Phil’s family and a few of those old ladies who go to all the funerals. The kids were either laughing together or busy on their phones. A few of the real little kids were running around and hiding behind the shrubbery.

The seven of us came up to Phil’s brother while he was checking out the tag on a newly delivered vase of flowers. I told him how sorry we were for his loss. “We all worked with your brother at the grocery store.”

“I am happy for you,” Phil’s brother said, and he turned away to check more tags.

Phil was lying there in the box. I expected him to look relaxed and peaceful, but he still looked pissed. His hands were folded over and the middle finger of his right hand was curled up a bit. Not exactly how I’d like to greet St. Peter.

The service was short. The family’s preacher had never actually met Phil, so he gave a standard spiel about God’s forgiveness and love. He worked in that Phil had always been hard working and responsible and how he had never done anything really wrong. He also mentioned what faithful church members Phil’s brother and sister were. A hint of salvation by association, I guess. He left Phil’s final judgment up to God, but I noticed his tone wasn’t hopeful.

None of the family spoke. From where we sat at the back, we could see that everyone ahead of us was working a mobile device, mostly cell phones but also notebooks, tablets, and even a couple laptops, even Phil’s sister in the front row was on a phone. All those thumbs going up and down in silent devotion was oddly like a congregation of contemplatives counting their beads. The only exception was Phil’s brother. He spent the time scowling out a window.  The three front-end girls who came with us had been the only ones there to shed any tears at the viewing, but they now had their phones out too.

After the memorial service Phil’s brother stood up. He announced that there would be a reception after the burial “for the family” in the basement of their church. He gave us a cold eye.

Once we left the service we had a huddle.

“It’s pretty obvious Phil’s family doesn’t need our emotional support,” said Wes.

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “They seem to have already arrived at the stage of healing and acceptance.”

“OK,” said Trudy, “we’ve seen the last of Phil. I don’t need to see them plant his box to know he’s not coming back.”

“And you don’t want to see where he’s buried,” Wes smirked, “in case you want to come visit him?”

“Visit him! Not unless I spit on his grave.”

“Trudy!” I interrupted, “Phil is on his way to God. He wasn’t outgoing but he wasn’t evil. He just became angry because he was sick. We have to forgive that anger and try to remember Phil with love.”

“Phil’s family grew up with him. You can sure see how much they miss him. If you want to believe Phil is on his way to God, Brother Mike, that’s good of you. But I think when they put Phil six feet down that will just be the first step before a much deeper descent.”

“Well,” said Bob, “I really wanted to meet his family. None of them ever came to our events at the school. His brother and sister graduated before we came in as freshmen. But none of his family will even look at me.”

“I think I want to go home,” wailed one of the girls, waving her phone.

“I hope this hasn’t upset you,” I said.

“No, Evan wants me to send him pics of me in my new bikini, and I don’t have it with me!”

So we skipped the burial. I put another quart of oil in Methuselah and we left for home.

I dropped my co-workers off and parked the van outside the Shoestring Chapel in Knightville. I felt pretty depressed. What kind of life had Phil lived that his death seemed to matter so little to his family? And what kind of judgment could he expect from God, if the judgment of those who knew him on earth was so cold?

It was a warm day for April in Maine and still early in the afternoon, so I decided to walk down Waterman Drive to Thomas Knight Park in order to clear my mind. Knight Park is a wedge of parkland jutting out into the Fore River, where the South Portland end of the old Million Dollar Bridge once stood. It now sits in the shadow of the Casco Bay Bridge. The park still has a bit of the old brick street with its trolley rails from the early 20th century, when the trolley cars ran over the old bridge between the lanes for autos. I like the feel of history there, plus the view of the harbor.

As I reached the park, I met Bernie Bastardo on his three-wheel bike. Bernie was out collecting cans for redemption and he had a huge bag of them strapped to the little cart he pulls behind his bike. Bernie has worked maintenance at our store off and on for years. He’s also a semi-regular at the Shoestring Chapel. Mostly he hangs out on the streets and in the city parks.

“That’s a good haul of cans you’ve got there, Bernie.”

“You haven’t seen the best part, Brother Mike.” Bernie dug out a fifth of watermelon flavored vodka, about a third full, from a side pouch on his bike. “Look, Mike, this was almost full when I found it!”

“Is that stuff really fit to drink?” I asked. “And, Bernie, the bottle’s been opened and left lying along the street.”

“Well, it’s nothing I’d ever buy. But it’s free! Some kids probably panicked and threw it out a car window last night. When they saw a cop car coming up behind.”

“And you enjoy it?”

“The vodka part is for real! The watermelon flavor tastes fake. Still it’s a blessing on my day.” Bernie did a little happy dance around his bike until he tripped over a loose piece of pavement. I helped him up and suggested we sit down on a bench nearby.

“I don’t think it’s a blessing from God, Bernie. More like a temptation from Satan.”

“But, Mike, it is a blessing! I don’t have to buy any hooch today, so now I can use my can money to buy food at McDonald’s.”

“Bernie, maybe you should come back to work at the store and see if you can live a regular life for a while.”

“No thanks, Brother Mike, I’m doing fine right now.”

We watched the traffic on the bridge for a while and caught glimpses of boats through the bushes as they moved along the river.

“Bernie, I went to Phil’s funeral this morning.”

“I heard he died.”

“None of Phil’s family seemed to care. It was like they had had been dragged into some pointless motivational meeting at the store and they were just waiting for it to be over so they move on to something important.”

“Well, Phil was OK to work next to, before he got sick, but he never was friendly or interested in anyone else.”

“But if you grew up with someone, wouldn’t you remember them with some warmth? Especially when they died. They must have shared some good times.”

“I never saw any warmth in Phil. Never knew him to have any good times, either.”

“No, neither did I, Bernie. And that’s what worries me. How can anyone never do anything at least a little endearing?”

“I don’t know if everyone has a likeable side, Brother Mike.”

“Trudy insists Phil is headed for hell.”

“She would! I’ve heard them fight.”

“I can’t believe that Phil is condemned to hell, Bernie, but Jesus does say that we must love one another.”

“I don’t know that people always show love by being nice.”

“True. Some people feel love but hide it to protect themselves. Maybe Phil’s meanness wasn’t what he felt in his heart. Maybe he just hid himself behind a lot of attitude.”

“Never saw him give anyone a kind look.”

“I don’t know that you can be saved by a love that doesn’t show itself in kindly acts. If love really exists it must show itself in good works.”

“What if a man verbally abuses his family, Brother Mike, maybe even beats them at times, but he gives up his life trying to save them from a fire? Because he loves them.”

“Wow, Bernie! I guess his sacrifice might show the kind of love that could save him.”

“So what if the fire never happens? He still loves them inside.”

“Yes.”

“When Trudy looks at me she sees a useless drunk. I’m sure she thinks I’m going to hell. Well, Mike, Trudy doesn’t know me! She has no idea who I am inside. And you, Brother Mike, I bet you’re different inside from how people see you. You talk a lot about your life, but you’ve got feelings you’re protecting. You’re not comfortable showing people every thing that’s inside you.”

“Yes.… I failed someone in my life, Bernie.… She was a close friend, intelligent, energetic. She would do anything she could for those close to her. But she had used heroin earlier in her life. And it came back. I could have intervened. I could have taken the chance of putting myself between her and her returning addiction. But instead I distanced myself, Bernie. I didn’t make the effort that she needed.”

“But she didn’t want you to intervene.”

“I think she did, Bernie. Of course, she would have resisted an intervention. I would have had a real struggle with her. But I think she wanted someone to care enough to make that struggle. There was still time when I found out. Then she was dead.”

“You couldn’t change her if she didn’t want to change.”

“I should have tried, Bernie. We need to keep trying to help because at some moment, at some just-the-right moment people may want to change. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life, but my deepest regrets are all failures of omission.”

We watched five bicyclists come down Ocean Ave., round the curve by the park and shoot off up Waterman toward the Greenbelt Pathway.

“I wouldn’t have guessed this, Brother Mike.”

“No one here knew her and I don’t talk about it. But I live with it inside every day”

“No one knows who we are inside.”

“It could be Phil really was just the self-centered and short-tempered person he seemed to be. Or he could have been someone very different in his heart.”

“Phil might find a home in heaven, Brother Mike.”

“And Trudy just might meet him again when she gets up there. You know, Bernie, I think God may have room in heaven for grumpy angels.”

“Yes, so do I. But if God wants peace in paradise, I bet he’ll send those two to opposite corners.”

 

 
Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

St Thérèse of Lisieux statue at Calvary Cemetery in S. Portland, Maine. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

St Thérèse of Lisieux statue at Calvary Cemetery in S. Portland, Maine. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

In the Eyes of God: A Short Story Set in South Portland, Maine

June 29, 2018

 

Traffic was heavy as I walked back across the Fore River on the Casco Bay Bridge. I had been to visit Steve in the cardiac unit at Mercy Hospital in Portland. I’ve known Steve ever since I started working in the grocery. Steve is Roman Catholic, so he’s afraid to join us Christians without pedigree at the Shoestring Chapel. He doesn’t want his priest giving him a cold eye. But we are friends at work and he knows that I am a lay minister, so sometimes we talk about God.

This is Steve’s third heart attack and he’s more worried about where he’s going after death than he is about dying. He has a point. Steve’s a good guy when he’s sober at work, but he just can’t pass by a bar at happy hour going home. The first couple of drinks relax him, but he can’t stop. And after a few more, well . . . Steve becomes a mean drunk. Some of the guys tried to go with him to help him leave and keep him out of fights. But if you try to cut him off, you’re in a fight with Steve. And if you just keep him company, you’re drawn into Steve’s fights with strangers. Steve’s been married, although she had that annulled, and he’s had a long list of girlfriends, but these R&Rs never bring him any rest & relaxation. What Steve ends up with is romance & restraining order.

Everything went quiet around me as I turned left and walked into the old business district of Knightville in the city of South Portland. Most of the out-of-towners left these shops years ago for the big box stores around the Maine Mall. Now downtown Knightville is a quiet center for residents from the local community.

I walked in past the auto parts stores, the used-book-and-video store, the branch banks, the fast food stops, the old True Value hardware, the Goodwill, and the Chinese buffet. All these places had customers, just no rush, no crowds. It felt good getting back to village life after walking through city traffic. I headed on into Knightville’s Mill Creek Park. As I walked along the duck pond, I saw Bernie Bastardo sitting on a bench watching a mixed flock of birds.

I often run into Bernie at the park. Bernie says he lives there. Really it’s just his living room. He has a room where he sleeps in an old house close by. Bernie works off and on at the grocery where I clerk, but most of his support comes from Human Services and bottle redemption. The soup kitchen helps.

Bernie moved over and nodded for me to sit down. He looked tired.

“Bernie, I’ve just come from visiting Steve. He’s had another heart attack.”

Bernie frowned and shook his head. “Still worried about going to hell?”

“Yes. I told him if he repented and confessed, God would forgive his sins. He’s talked to every priest in southern Maine, but he’s still afraid.”

Bernie opened his pack and started throwing hunks of bread to the ducks and geese. I’ve seen him dig bread out of the compost barrels behind the grocery. He says it’s good food for birds, and sometimes he finds something he likes.

Bernie frowned again. “Steve repents and confesses, but he can’t change.” Bernie sounded agitated.

The geese were bunching up on us and driving the ducks out, so Bernie gave me a loaf of gluten free to tear up and throw on the other side.

“But if we seek God’s love, Bernie, God will accept us for the weak vessels we are and forgive our failings.”

The bread was gone so the birds drifted back to foraging.

Bernie fished a couple Danish out of his pack and offered me one. “Thank you, Bernie. But I ate at Becky’s before I came back.”

Bernie looked more than hungry, actually angry, as he bit a hunk out of the pastry.

“How do you know God will forgive our failings, Brother Mike? I have a brother and a sister. Neither one has forgiven me for who I am.”

“I’m sorry, Bernie. Our families are just people like us. They have their own failings, and sometimes they fail at forgiveness and love. God is different. God’s love is unfailing.”

Bernie chewed on his Danish awhile before looking up.

“God loves those who do what the church says! God doesn’t love those of us who can’t change. The priests don’t cut us no slack. Do what they say or we’re out the door! They recite and the saved respond, in chorus.”

The birds were watching Bernie eating but the tone of his voice kept them back.

I know, Bernie. When I was growing up, our fundamentalist preachers had that view of God. God was this obsessed overseer constantly watching you. Commit a sin and he would write you up. Do it twice and he would fire you like a cannon ball out of the Army of the Saved. But, Bernie, we Christians have Jesus. Jesus is the good cop at God’s throne. Jesus is the fuckup’s advocate who sacrificed his life to get us reenlisted. Jesus loves us for who we are.”

“Providing we grovel on our knees, confess to the priest, and do our penance.”

Bernie threw the last of his Danish at a little duck on the far edge of the flock, but a big goose charged in and took it.

“Well, yes, Bernie, I suppose…Actually it was different in my church. If we did something really bad, we had to confess to the whole congregation, and then they prayed for us.”

“Shit! Bad enough to confess to a voice in a closet.”

“Yes, but for the little stuff we confessed directly to God in prayer.”

Bernie took a Pepsi bottle out of his pack and began drinking some clear liquid inside. His refreshment seemed to calm him down.

“Mike, I’d rather face a droning priest than an angry God. I know in this town you want an attorney beside you when you stand up before a judge.”

“Well, we had to plead our own case.”

Bernie took a little more from the Pepsi bottle and relaxed into a smile.

“Actually, Mike, I don’t think God is as angry as Steve and those church people think. Maybe he’s like my brother and sister. If they don’t see me or hear about me, it’s like I don’t exist. Maybe God’s not even interested in us. I mean people pull the same stupid crap over and over. And we have been doing dumb shit for thousands of years. God must have gotten bored after Adam and Eve. He knows we’ll never wise up. It’s not in our nature. We’re a done deal.”

“Hm. Individual people can change, though. You and I don’t have to repeat our sins.”

“I seem to.”

Some of birds had come back and Bernie smiled at the little duck poking his head around inside his pack.

“God’s bored, Bro.”

Bernie finished his Pepsi bottle and closed it up inside his pack. “God’s not going to notice me pocketing a little food. You could whack a whole family and just get a yawn. And if you want help, better dial 911. Saying a prayer for help is like sending snail mail without a stamp. It might bounce back but it won’t be delivered.”

“I still feel like someone is listening when I pray.”

Bernie laughed.

“Well, Mike, since you brought that mullah into the Shoestring Chapel to explain jihads, it’s probably Homeland Security.”

“But you do think God exists?”

“Yes, but the Big Guy’s busy. He’s probably working on some other galaxy right now. Just because we’re important to us, doesn’t mean we’re important to Him.” Bernie and the little duck were eyeing each other. Almost like he was talking to the duck. “We’re the ones listening to our own prayers. And we’re the ones who have to help ourselves.”

“And you don’t pray, Bernie?”

Bernie looked over at me and smiled.

“Yeah, sometimes I do pray, God help me. I’m only human.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Prayer, a Statue in Calvary Cemetery in S. Portland, Maine. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Prayer, a Statue in Calvary Cemetery in S. Portland, Maine. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

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.

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.

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.

The One Who Saw God: A Short Story for Spring

April 20, 2018

 

Mrs. Kenworthy’s cows watched the heads of a dozen members of The Goodmen’s Benevolence Society bouncing like balloons above the iron-hard seats of the retired school bus. The Goodmen were hurrying ahead of the storm on their way down the gravel shortcut that led to Waterwheel Estates, the small new development where many of them lived.

It was Tom, staring out into the gloom of the dark afternoon sky, who first saw the tornado. It was tiny in the distant south. He couldn’t figure it out at first, and he wondered if it were only a dense body of rain held aloft in the clouds. But as he watched, the distant churning moved down to the earth, though its point of contact was hidden by the hills and trees that formed the horizon.

Tom’s announcement came with all the drama of a hiccup and just before the punch line of Bud’s joke about Brittany Jones, the local TV anchorwoman. “Isn’t that a tornado?” he asked. The crowd of men looked first at him with mild irritation, paused, then looked with a rush at the windows, following his gaze into the distance.

“My God! It is a tornado!” said Jack. “How far off do you think it is?”

“Can’t be more than three miles” Bud reflected, “or we’d never be able to see it against that dark sky.” General agreement followed. “Where do you think it’s going, Elias?” someone asked, and everyone turned to listen to the old man’s opinion.

Elias lived on what was left of his small farm. For fifty years, he had kept the farm going by working full time on a section gang repairing the railroads in northwestern Indiana. That was before most of the lines were abandoned and the tracks pulled up. For ten years now he had lived retired and virtually alone with his paralyzed wife in a warped old shack of a house in the little woods next to the development.

The ground on which the development sat had been his corn field, but now he sat for hours on his steps and watched his old barn slowly fall to ruin. Everyone knew Elias, and respected his knowledge of area geography; but not much was ever said to him and even less was ever heard from him, though the Goodmen sometimes carried him along on their baseball outings as an easy gesture toward their charitable mission.

The wrinkles tightened around the old man’s eyes as he watched the cloud. “It will be in Palmer in a minute,” he said, almost to himself.

“There’ll be the Devil to pay in Palmer,” announced Bud. “Damn glad I don’t live there!”

“Shouldn’t we call someone to warn them.” suggested Jack. Jack had a social conscious, which led him into more volunteer work than his wife, or his fellow Goodmen, could appreciate. “What will people think of us if we don’t even call?”

“Do you even know anyone in Palmer, Jack?” Bud responded. “Anyway, I guess the people in Palmer will know in a minute if they don’t know now.” He lit a Camel and looked out with eager interest at the storm. Tom remembered how much Bud enjoyed watching contact sports. Physical drama brought him to life.

Jack dialed 911 on his cell. No connection.

Elias sat deep in thought. Tom wondered if he were praying. Elias was known to be the oldest member of the little country church that served the remaining farmers in the area. The people of the development didn’t go there, although it was only a couple miles away. They went to large stained-glass churches in the nearby cities, or else they slept late.

Elias never swore or drank and was known to read the Bible daily. People respected him, in a patronizing sort of way. They thought about all those years he had taken care of his wife instead of putting her into a nursing home. It was sobering. It was a little frightening, too, all those days and nights living with a woman who could only make cries like an animal to tell him of her moods and needs. People couldn’t imagine what the world looked like inside his habitual and watchful silence.

Not that they worried about it. Elias was a small rock in the stream of their lives. Their conversations and projects bubbled around him without them really noticing his presence. If he didn’t function as a part of their society, he didn’t disrupt their society either. They just would once in a while notice that he was there.

The bus finally stopped at the entrance of Elias’s long driveway, and he began moving toward the door. “Hey, you’ve got a CB receiver, don’t you, Elias? Maybe we could pick up something on the air.” Tom did not want to go onto Elias’s land or into his house with the paralyzed wife. He wanted to go home to his wife and daughter.

“Come on, Tom!” ordered Bud. “You’re the one who called this thing,” and Bud pulled him out of his seat.

Five of the men piled out behind Elias and filed down the gravel path that curved around the head of a gully to the old single-story house hidden in the trees. Jack tried his cell again. Nothing. Following at the end of the group, Tom noticed how firm the ground was underneath the grass in the middle of the driveway. He felt like he was walking on pumped muscle. In the trees the tornado could not be seen. The cluttered old woods was dense with tangled brush and decay. The tornado was like a dream among the gently rustling oaks, except for the blackness of the southern sky.

Tom couldn’t imagine the old woods on a sunny day. If sunlight ever penetrated the treetops, he felt the woods would vanish. The woods was a cold place, dark and menacing like the sky. Together they seemed to form a world far removed from his life in Waterwheel Estates.

Everything in the Estates was carefully packaged and maintained. The waterwheel was a fake. There wasn’t even a creek nearby. The hollow plastic wheel sat in an artificial pool at the entrance. An electric motor pumped water up a small pipe to fall onto the blades and make the wheel slowly turn. Everything at the Estates was diagrammed and easy to understand.

Tom put his hands in his pockets and hunched up his shoulders. He heard no birds. He saw no squirrels. Everything in the woods was unnaturally silent. It reminded him of the Flying Dutchman, the phantom ship, tattered, with no living crew, that appeared to doomed sailors. What sins could Elias have committed, he wondered, that he and his wife should be the sole dwellers in this woods. But Tom felt his own inadequacy here more clearly than Elias’s remoteness. He had never been comfortable in nature, at least outside a city park. In a park you would have pleasant little squirrels to watch, and someone would have cleaned up all these dead limbs and brush.

Maybe Elias liked the woods. Tom couldn’t imagine why. There was nothing to do here. You couldn’t picnic in the brush and weeds. You could sit on a fallen log, he supposed, and watch the mushrooms grow. Could you eat the wild grapes that wound their vines up into the trees? Could you even reach them? There were patches of what Bud had told him were Mayapples. Bud said inside they were sweet and slimy and full of seeds. The thought of sucking out their pulp made him shudder. If there were worms, Bud said, you could spit them out with the seeds. What could Elias do in a woods like this?

Yet it seemed the right place for him. Both were old and decayed, with no real usefulness anymore. Both were forbiddingly silent and ghostly, deep but at the same time opaque. Like the black sky to the south, he thought, and he wondered if all the invisible churning and violence within those clouds had some parallel within Elias’s woods, inert and silent as it seemed. Perhaps a slow violence was moving just beneath the leaves, a violence in the ground to match the violence in the clouds, only much slower, too slow for men to notice who moved only on its surface, and harder to define or measure.

As they approached the house, Tom felt his skin tighten. He thought the house disliked him. The old house in the old woods seemed like a setting in some fearful fairy tale. What was he doing coming here with these men? The best answer he could give was that he was doing what he had always done – follow someone else’s plan. He hadn’t wanted to move out to the development. All his life he had lived in suburbs close to Chicago, comfortably surrounded by people like himself. But his wife wanted to raise their daughter in the country, so he had brought them to the development and now commuted forty miles to work.

Mrs. Kenworthy met the men at the door. She had been watching Elias’s wife, as she had off and on for twenty years, but now she wanted to hurry back to her farm before the storm.

The men stumbled their way through the tools and old clothes that were heaped about the narrow porch, walked through the kitchen and took various places leaning or sitting about the tiny living room where Elias had an old 23-channel CB receiver. Most of the men had never been in the house before, and the grunts and cries of his speechless wife in the next room made them glance about uneasily. An old leather-bound Bible lay open to Revelations on the table surrounded by bent nails, a coffee cup, and odd pieces of machinery and wire. The CB was on a shelf with old books and emergency candles.

After a few seconds of scanning they picked up a conversation.

“. . . she went right through Palmer and headed east. It looks like the end of the world over there. Go ahead.”

“Have you been able to pick up anything about the people?”

“I heard on the sheriff’s channel that someone reported six dead already, a couple of them children. I wonder . . .”

“It is Jehovah,” Elias whispered to himself.

“What?” asked Tom, but he was cut off by Bud.

“Six dead! Did you hear that? And in a village only three miles from here! Do you think we’ll make the national news? God, I’m glad I didn’t buy that house near Palmer!” Bud was always proud of his foresight.

“It is Jehovah,” said Elias, calmly but with force. “He has come to claim us.”

Everyone looked at Elias. Tom first tried to put his hands into his pockets, then folded them together and pressed them between his knees. He felt uncomfortable in this decayed house. He didn’t really know Elias, and he would have gladly gone home, if he could have slipped past Bud blocking his way to the door. The old man’s assertion frightened him almost as much as the tornado. What kind of man was he?

Jack reached over and began scanning the channels again.

“I wonder where that bugger’s going now,” Jack worried.

“The guy said it was going east,” replied Bud. “What will it hit east of Palmer, Elias?”

“Jehovah won’t forget us,” muttered Elias. Then, glancing sideways at Bud, he added, “It will hit nothing east of Palmer.”

A crack in the east window began to whistle softly and a branch began rubbing against the side of the house. “The wind has shifted around,” said Jack.

“Hey now, Elias, there must be something east of Palmer,” urged Bud, his eyes bright with enthusiasm. “What about that little place called Hurlbert? Isn’t that east of Palmer? They were both right along the railroad.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard of a Hurlbert,” said Jack. “It must be pretty small.”

“Yeah, they used to load cattle there. What do you think about Hurlbert, Elias?”

Elias said nothing. He sat listening, with one hand clenched on the table. Tom thought Elias looked like a prophet, and he felt as if he himself were among the worshippers of some false god about to be consumed by fire out of heaven.

He found himself staring at Elias. The old man’s eyes had never seemed so clear and full of life. But it was a life he could not fathom. It made him want to run. Elias wasn’t a man like him. He seemed an apparition conjured out of the forest, a spirit with which he had no way to deal. Tom felt like one of the children of Bethel must have felt when they saw the she-bears of Elisha coming out of the woods to maul them. He chewed hard on his lip and glanced quickly about the room.

“Hey, listen to this!” Jack had found something on the CB.

“. . . just about that corner. Then the damned thing turned back around. Hell, I think it’s heading back past Palmer but further north. I can still see it from my car. I’m gonna follow, if the road’s clear. Say you know it looks like it may hit that little Waterwheel development north of Palmer. . . .”

“Shit!” said Jack, “He said it’s heading here.” Everyone looked out the window, but all they could see were the gently swaying trees at the side of the house.

“Jehovah has come!” announced Elias, and he rose up beside the table. All the men poured through the house and spilled like marbles into the front yard. About a half mile before them in the sky the tornado loomed, twisting, weaving back and forth above them like a black cobra with a shifting hood of clouds.

“I’m going home!” cried Tom.

“My God! There are no basements in the development!” gasped Jack. “And we can’t even get home before it hits!”

Jack and another man grabbed Tom and held him back.

“Elias must have a cellar,” cried Bud.

The men turned to see Elias braced in his doorway with his wife in a wheelchair and a double-barreled shotgun in his hands: “Jehovah has come and we must meet Him.”

Christ, man! You can’t leave us out here to die,” pleaded Bud. “Quick, let’s get in the cellar.”

“No! You must give yourself to God! We shall meet Him on the hilltop.”

Bud stepped toward Elias, but the old man cocked both hammers and pointed the gun into his face. Bud backed off and turned to look at the approaching funnel. They all looked at the black twisting cloud before them. The roar came to them through the gently rustling leaves. They could not see the impact as it entered the development on the far side, but debris flew in the air above the tree line.

“Let’s get in the gully!” cried Bud.

The men broke and ran for the wooded ravine. Behind them they could hear Elias calling, “No! Jehovah has called you! Stand up with the elect!”

Tom and the others slipped down the eroded sides and hesitated among the trees at the bottom. Decades of rains had washed out much of the soil beneath the old trees. They stood there like giant, ruined pillars of the old forest, raised above the ground on arthritic roots that twisted everywhere into the clay. Some of the trees had broken down. Many leaned into each other or rested against the gully’s side.

“Get inside the roots!” cried Jack, and each man ran to a tree. As the other men squirmed their way beneath their trees, Tom heard a slow creaking above him in the wind. He looked up to see a tree with half its branches dead, leaning like an old slate tombstone neglected in a pioneer graveyard. He imagined its roots waking up around him, twisting like snakes, strangling his body, tightening, squeezing, choking off his throat and guts.

Tom ran up the side of the gully toward his house. “I’m going to my family!” he cried, more frightened by the gully than the storm.

“Tom, come back!” cried Jack. “You can’t make it.” But Tom reached the top and disappeared running toward the development.

The cloud came to the gully’s edge, roaring, black, angry, raging up to heaven, up into the dark sickly green richness of the sky, oversaturated with icy rain and power and what seemed a hatred of mankind. Then the men’s ears popped and, looking up, they saw someone flying in the sky.

*

Tom no longer felt the impact of the wind and debris. He felt quiet and at peace. Tom relaxed from his fetal position and opened his eyes. As he looked down he saw the world below circling round and round him. All kinds of things were moving with him in the air but no longer hitting him since all were moving together at the same speed. In the distance, he saw the ruins of the development. Nothing remained standing.

Then he saw Elias far below blowing like a rag across the fields. His wife’s wheelchair tumbled behind. In the gully the trees still writhed in their death agony, twisting around on their convulsing roots like berserk peasants treading grapes to wine. Tom thought he saw the wine seeping out from some of the roots. Inside the vortex Tom saw the development’s waterwheel spinning wildly like a dreidel, a little wheel spinning in the air within the giant wheel of the vortex.

Then Tom was carried further aloft through the clouds and up into the thunderhead above. The tornado must have passed over a lake because Tom found himself drenched with the smell of the marina and surrounded with a multitude of fish. A bluegill was suspended next to his face, its mouth slowly opening and closing. The updraft lifted him up and up.

Near the top of the thunderhead, tremendous and continuous lightning witnessed nature’s power to the clouds and earth below. A cloud tunnel suddenly opened above Tom, and looking into the upper sky far above the storm, Tom beheld the serene and solemn face of God. He was looking to the west, toward the sunset, looking intently at something far away from the dying people and fish and trees below. Then the cloud tunnel closed with cold, green clouds, and an intense downdraft of driving hail battered Tom’s body back toward the earth.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

“Grackle’s Ascension,” a precursor to this story, was published in Little Balkans Review. It is a different treatment of the same situation.

 

Angel with the Book - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Angel with the Book – 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