Posts Tagged ‘death’

Waiting Among the Dead

August 16, 2017

 

Every morning dead crawdads pile up at my door
like nestlings dropped from a tree
I shovel them into bags and carry them out back
For every day a new bag lining my alley
They stink through the fly-covered plastic
My neighbor Allen says eat them fresh

He comes and sits on my steps
We watch lines of ants searching the bleached grass
Allen scratches dying skin from his legs
and ants carry it away

All day the sun on cracked clay and hot steps
A dripping hose has drawn four-inch slugs
They lie around in the morning like dead moths
Allen says they are shell-less snails
Eat them French

The summer sun shines all day and on into the night
I walk the streets and feel the sweat blossom
like mushrooms above the band of my cap
I haven’t shaved or bathed, and my mouth tastes
like instant coffee
When I piss it is dark yellow and kills the leaves
Where I piss daily earth worms gather
pink and fishy white

I wear no sandals and refuse to wash my feet
As I lie in bed I can feel small insects moving
between my toes
Skunks gather at my door to eat the slugs and crawdads
In the morning they are dead
I shovel their corpses into bags for Allen’s alley

Allen dies eating crawdads in his garden
His wife returns my bags of corpses
They are overflowing my alley
All day I watch for rain
My nose cracks and bleeds
and my tongue is cloth

On Sunday I follow a crow to the graveyard
It calls to me from Allen’s stone
The grass around his grave is rich with green
At dusk a crawdad peeks out of his hole
Allen’s eyes shine up at me like rubies

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

An earlier version of this poem was first published in Tellus.

 

Discussion

This is an August poem from the decade I spent living with and without air conditioning in Kansas. It commemorates the dog days of summer and of my life. If you have never felt this way yourself, I salute you.

I think of it as the feeling Jimi Hendrix must have had when he wrote “I Don’t Live Today.” But with way too much sun instead of no sun coming in through the window.

“Oh, no. Oh, there ain’t no life nowhere.”

 

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

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

Report to the Air

July 21, 2017

for Thea

 

There was your yard and your old house
and your two dogs.
And I was sitting on the rusty tub
we moved in from the farm.
There was your father with no fingers,
your mother opening beer.
And we all sat outside in Kansas
without you.

Today a neighbor brought a pie.
Someone you knew came to adopt your cat.

 

First published in Hanging Loose.

 

Sky above Land's End, Maine - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

The Widow Battinelli

June 19, 2017

 

Father Lucarelli consoles me, my speech
falters. Black veiled ladies bring by a meal,

offer to pray with me for his soul, to beseech
God. I tear their prayer card as I kneel

next to Cosmo’s photograph on a pool of lace.
At night, I open the urn by the bed,

scoop cold ashes to smooth across my face.
Our cat circles and cries for the dead,

the familiar lap in the empty chair.
Cosmo’s silver watch beats distressed,

the weight of sixty years I bear.
Coarse links chafe against my breast.

Pregare Dio!” the black veils drone.
My faith gone dry as ash and bone.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Alvera Lisa Smetzer

Angel of Strength - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Strength – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

A Simple Communion: An Old Man Buries His Withered Fruits

June 15, 2017

 

After years of desiccation, an old man gathered
up the withered fruits of what had been his life.
He buried them under the weeds in his garden
and left them to rot.  Inside, he waited his turn.

But in the spring his withered fruits sprouted
and small buds, then stunted flowers came forth.
Discovering his fruits were still alive, the old man
begrudgingly weeded his garden and watered them.

By fall his garden had ripened with tiny fruits.
Because he was still alive, he ate some and found
them sweet and wholesome. He gathered the rest
to make a meal for those who lived around him.  

During the winter snows the old man disappeared,
but his garden flowered in the spring, and in the fall
it gave a small harvest.  His neighbors collected
his fruits and shared them in the old man’s memory.

The next day the old man came home:
“Who the fuck ate my garden!?”

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

A prose version of this parable was published in 2010 on Brother Michael This Morning.

Sad Mike - photo by Mike Smetzer

Sad Mike – photo by Mike 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