Posts Tagged ‘death’

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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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.

Tiny Pink Flowers: A Very Short Story in Verse

June 1, 2018

 

He wakes up to her scream, a jolt and his legs
kicking. He sees the pink flowered sheet
spilling over him like lava falling off the bed.
Hundreds of printed flowers falling.

He watches the fingernails of his own hand
dig deep furrows across the bottom sheet.
His hand drops over the side. The walls,
the ceiling shimmer with light.

In the doorway, a red, hard-set face with a gun.
The gun jerks. He hears the second shot, her gasp.
He sees the blue steel hole fixed in a drifting halo.
He smells gun smoke. The mattress wobbles.

Her buttocks rise up beside the bed. The top sheet
folds together as she pulls it back around her body.
She lurches forward, pink flowers trailing behind.
The hands of the gunman tremble.

The revolver extends before him, held with
both hands, still aiming. His feet are apart.
Her shoulders are bare above the sheet. Red oozes
through pink. Her voice is faint — “Bobby?”

As she turns back, the man’s face twists into grief.
The pink flowered sheet is ribboned red.
Muscles tighten in her arms and legs.
She staggers. Her eyes open. Her lips part.

From outside down the hall, a cuckoo calls three.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Window Light. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Window Light. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

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.

Floating Opals: A Poem of Ghosts & Time

February 2, 2018

 

Little flames play against the old lady’s neck,
turning before the darkness of her dress,
as she waits in line for his viewing.

She fingers the white ghosts, which rise
in a slow timeless tumbling, swirling
past each other in their crystal sphere.
They fade into translucence, to turn
and reappear in fire or dead white stone.

Iridescent bursts of pinks and greens and blues.
A universe sealed in her miniature globe,
an eternity at the base of her withered neck.

 

First published in Innisfree Poetry Journal.

 

Light Through Window Panes. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

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