Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Skunky’s Steel Mill Story: A Verse Fiction

June 24, 2017

 

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

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

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

I remember it was hot that noon. No breeze off the lake.
I was sitting outside on the loading dock, leaning
on the corrugated steel. That steel felt cool in the shade.

The explosion had to be loud, but I don’t remember. I think
I saw an orange flame. Then the top two thirds of Number 3
Blast Furnace disappeared in churning, black disaster smoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We swept coke balls off the parking, all afternoon.

 

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

 

Discussion

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

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

Mike Smetzer at Harbor - Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Mike Smetzer at Harbor – Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

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

June 11, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

“When the alarm sounds, you will die.”

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

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

“Are you sure you want me?”

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

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

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

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

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

Two minutes left.

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

The clock ticked on.

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

Twenty seconds left.

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

Seventeen seconds.

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

Fifteen seconds.

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

Twelve seconds.

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

Four seconds.

Silence. Another tick.

Three seconds.

A longer silence. Tick.

Two seconds.

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

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

Only one second left!

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

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Discussion

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

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

 

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

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

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

May 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

“No, I guess not.”

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

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

“Fireproof.”

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Skunky’s Steel Mill Story

August 18, 2013

by Mike Smetzer

***************

It wasn’t my department. But since you asked, I do remember some details. It must be forty years ago now. Steve and I were new. The white hats were off somewhere, so we spent the morning playing broom hockey with a pint we dug out from a fan mount. Jack Daniels, Black Label. Sometimes we found them part full, but this was empty and open. Except maybe half a teaspoon, dried to a syrup.

I remember it was hot that noon. I was sitting outside on the loading dock, leaning on the corrugated steel. The steel felt cool in the shade. The explosion had to be loud, but I don’t remember. I think I saw an orange flame. Then maybe the top two thirds of “The Largest Blast Furnace in the Western Hemisphere” disappeared in that black disaster smoke. You’ve seen it on TV.

What I really remember is the coke. Pea sized. Coming down all around me and bouncing on the concrete. I remember my hard hat was lying upside down with a sandwich in it. Pickle loaf with American cheese. Then I was standing inside the loading dock with the hard hat on my head and pickle loaf mush on my hand.

When I looked back, men were coming down the stairs along the outside and running toward the road. I remember light shirts under a black cloud. I finished lunch later, inside. I went back for my chocolate milk and bought a Butterfinger at the canteen. I have forgotten who died. No one I knew. But I remember those pellets of coke, dropped around like petrified bunny shit. We had to sweep coke balls out of the parking lot all afternoon.

first published in Staccato Fiction, Fall 2011

A Children’s Tale

May 27, 2010

This revised story Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer

**************

     Once, very long ago, a wonderful boy lived with his family in the dunes along Great Lake.  Jack, for that was his name, was a dutiful son.  From the first light until almost dark, he would be out in the dunes gathering food for his parents.  He would wade into the lake to net little fishes.  He would hunt through the saw grass for the eggs of birds.  He would gather wild rice along the marsh.  And in the spring he would dig sassafras near the tops of the highest dunes to make his parents tea.

     Jack had to work hard, but he loved his parents and so he was happy.  And his parents loved him, for he was their favorite child.  Although their other children were good, the parents sometimes sighed because none was as wonderful as Jack.  But they told each other, “Soon he will marry and then we will have grandchildren just as wonderful as he.”

     Then one day it happened that Jack’s father saw his own death nearby, watching. He called the family together around the little fire in their hut.  “Children,” he said, “when I was young my father placed a treasure in my hands.  Our family has owned our treasure since before these sands around us were solid rock.  All these years I have kept this treasure in darkness.  Now I will bring it back to light.”

    So saying, the old man opened a secret pocket and emptied a little sack into his palm.  All the children, the wife, and even the old man himself sat there amazed, for out of the little sack spilled a sand of tiny gems, each sparkling with firelight.  The gems filled them all with delight and awe and pride.  “Jack,” the old man said, “my death has arrived.  You are the most wonderful of sons, and it is to you I give our treasure.  Keep our family’s secret until you too grow old.”

* * *

     This happened when the blackberries were ripe.  When the sumac leaves turned red, the old man kept to his hut, and before the hickory trees were bare, he died.  They buried him at the landward edge of a dune so that time would raise a mound above his head.  Now Jack made a pocket to hide his father’s sack.  All winter he carried the gems, and in the spring he went to seek a wonderful wife.

     Jack wandered among the families along the lake, but he could find no girl as wonderful as he.  So one day Jack built a boat to cross the wide slough that separated the new dunes beside the lake from an ancient line of forested dunes, old shore watchers from a time when Great Lake was even larger.  As he walked among the oaks, he saw a young woman beside a spring.  She told him she had wandered far in the woods seeking mushrooms and fresh greens for her parents and the bulbs of spring beauties, which her mother loved.  And she had been so happy gathering for her parents that she had lost her way.  Then she had come to this spring, but she knew the forest around them was magical and now she was afraid to drink.  To Jack she seemed the most wonderful woman he had ever met.

     Smiling bravely, he knelt down and drank deeply, then sat down beside her on a log to rest.  Suddenly his legs jerked straight out, and his lower body swelled up so tight the pain made him howl.  The woman placed her sweater under his head and ran off into the forest calling for help.

     At this point an old man dressed like a healer appeared and asked Jack what was wrong.  Jack pointed to the spring and pleaded for his help.  “I can help you,” he said, “but you must swear a solemn oath to do everything I ask.”   Jack swore an oath on his father’s grave.  The man took water from his gourd and some herbs from near the spring and whipped them into a froth.  He rubbed this on Jack’s stomach and legs until they calmed.

     “What do you have in this pocket?” the old man asked.

     “It is my family treasure,” Jack replied.

     “Let me see it.  You have sworn on your father’s grave.”

     Jack was horrified but he dared not break his oath, so he lay still as the old man drew the sack from its pocket and spilled the gems into his hand.  In the daylight, even under the trees, the gems were too brilliant for Jack to look on, but he saw the old man’s wonder, then the greed in his eyes.

     “I will take these for my service,” he said, and with one gulp he swallowed them all.  Before Jack could cry out, the old man and the spring vanished.

* * *

     Through summer and fall Jack’s family searched the old dunes, but no trace of the old man did they find, nor anyone who knew him.  All winter and all spring Jack’s family mourned.  Then, when blackberries came ripe, Jack returned alone to the old dunes.  When he wandered to the place where the spring had been, he found the old man trapped in a fairy ring.  In those days woodland fairies would sometimes circle a sleeper, and where they stepped mushrooms would push up their earthy heads.  When the sleeper arose he could not cross their circle nor could the mushrooms be touched or the ring broken except with a fresh‑cut stick of poison oak.

     “Where are my gems?” Jack demanded.

     “Still in my stomach,” the old man replied.  “But if you will cut a stick of poison oak and free me from this ring, I will return them to you.”

     Jack cut the poison oak and took it in his hand.  He walked back to the ring.  “Do you swear you will return my gems if I free you?”

     “I swear,” the old man answered.

     When Jack broke the ring with his stick, the man hopped quickly out.

     “And now return my gems,” said Jack.

     The old man bent over and vomited black and green upon the ground and then again he was gone.  Jack scooped the vomit into his hat and carried it home.  Between the stench of the vomit and the swelling of his hands, it was the hardest trip Jack had ever made, but he was full of hope.

     On the shore of the lake Jack washed the vomit in a basin.  At the bottom he found a mass of gems, his family’s gems but all lackluster and black.  Never again would they sparkle with colors in the firelight.   Jack hid the gems in the sack and kept them as his duty in his pocket.  The next spring he went again into the old dunes and found the wonderful young woman he had met by the spring.  He told her his story and she married him for his honesty and his shame.  Together, in their simple way, they prospered and together they were happy and only sometimes a little sad.  The gems have passed through Jack’s descendants to this day, but no child since has ever seemed as wonderful as Jack.

(first published in My Legacy)