Posts Tagged ‘death’

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



“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?”



Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Floating Opals

November 14, 2013
by Mike Smetzer 
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 The Innisfree Poetry Journal)

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)

Waiting Among the Dead

May 19, 2010

This revised poem Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer


Every morning dead crawdads are piled by 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.
Lines of ants search the bleached grass.
Allen scratches dead skin off his legs,
and we watch ants carry this 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.  Serve them French.
The summer sun shines all day and on into the night.
I walk the streets and feel the sweat blossom
into mushrooms above the band of my cap.
I don’t shave or bathe, and whatever I drink
tastes of instant coffee.
When I piss it is dark yellow and stains the leaves.
Where I piss daily earth worms gather –
pink and fishy white.
I wear no sandals and won’t wash my feet.
As I lie in bed I can feel small insects moving
between my toes.
Skunks gather at my door to eat crawdads.
In the morning the skunks are dead.
I shovel their corpses into bags.
Allen will not accept my bags.
They are overflowing my alley.
All day I do nothing but wait for rain.
My nose bleeds and my tongue is cloth.
I follow a crow to the graveyard where he calls
from Allen’s stone.
The grass around his grave is rich with green.
At night a crawdad peeks out of his hole,
Allen’s eyes shine like rubies.

(first published in Tellus)

Smetzer Graves Near Clinton, Kansas

May 13, 2010


This revised poem Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer


To have lived a decade here
before I found these names:
        Edith Smetzer
        Daugh. of D. & E. Smetzer
        Died 1886
        Aged 14 days
her infant bones the earliest in the churchyard
        John Smetzer
        Died June 18, 1892
        Aged 74 years, 5 months, 15 days
at 61 he had been the oldest of the Ohio Smetzers
who traveled west to Kansas
and disappeared.
These things I have heard of my great great uncle:
        that he was illiterate,
        that he never married,
        that he was a hired man,
        that he was the only man of his family
                never to own land.
And I understood that he moved westward
        across the land
like a lateral root
hardly disturbing the leaves.
So here you ended, old uncle,
your plot open to the sky,
buried more deeply in your faint depression
        of earth
than ever you plowed.
It is evening.
Light blue still marks the western edge,
but the sky above is growing higher, thinning,
falling back through darker blues
to the blackness behind the stars.
And you, uncle, are still thinning
        in your darkness,
still dissolving into this place I’ve come to.
The darkness dissolves my family name
and leaves me open to a field of stones.
Years from now, my great nephew’s children
        may hear of me
        that I never married
        that I worked for wages,
        that I never owned land.
And I would like them to understand
that I was an illiterate of the earth,
as transient in my time as John in his,
as transient really as Edith there,
who never knew the soil
before it closed her in.

(first published in Kansas Quarterly)

Report to the Air: Four Dark Poems

May 5, 2010

 These revised poems Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer



Report to the Air
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)

Apple Trees
Suicide is private.
Your students and teachers
        are not invited.
You are alone in an old truck
        with the light on
and the needle touching your vein,
and you don’t want to die,
and the needle depresses your skin.
You think of someone you loved
as the ripple runs up your arm,
and you want to cry.
You want your friends to bleed.
In the turning of the world,
you smell gasoline, and dust,
and somewhere, apple trees.

(first published in Kansas Quarterly)

A Long Street
When I am walking at night and my shadow stops,
it is too late to turn back.
I scuff my shoes on the concrete.
Around the water tower nighthawks are dipping for moths.
I gaze at the lights,
and there is nowhere to go.
I sit on the curb and stare down the street.
It is a long street of houses and yards and parked cars.
There is nowhere it will take me.
My shadow lies on the concrete like paint.
It has stuck to my shoes,
and I can’t kick free.
Across the street a dog barks through a fence.
No one comes to the door.
He sniffs and wags his tail.
In my pockets, I have four dimes and a set of keys,
but there is nothing to buy
and no door my keys will open.

(first published in Cottonwood Review)

Leaving Town
I want the route that opens in winter.
So I will need gloves
and if it is very cold, mittens over gloves.
I will wear a hat with furry flaps
and as many socks
as will fit in my boots.
At dusk I will walk north
to Carter’s produce stand
and cross the highway to a small wood.
This is the place.
By day the whole wood is seen from the road,
but at night the lights will not find me.
I will take off my coat and sit down.
The gloves and the hat stay on.
I won’t be brought back
without fingers and ears.
Besides, the beauty is to leave all at once,
not from the extremities in.
You might leave on a starry night,
imagine your rise into space.
But I fear what’s open,
and why be afraid?
I’ll leave in the snow,
under the branches of trees.
What they find the next morning
will be frozen and neat.
Why spoil someone’s day?
They can thaw it out when they’re ready;
it won’t stink.
Quiet and dark, my route out of town.

(first published in Cincinnati Poetry Review)