Posts Tagged ‘God’

Walking Among the Waves: A New Free Kindle Book

January 13, 2019

Walking Among the Waves: Three Short Stories from Everyday Life is now available on Kindle. This new book features three short stories set in South Portland, Maine. The foreword is an essay on signs. The text is supported by bead mosaics from eight bracelets and a loom-framed wall hanging. Like the other books I have published on Kindle, this new book is listed at the minimum price of 99¢. 

If anyone is interested, Walking Among the Waves is available free, Sunday & Monday, January 13 & 14.

You do not need a Kindle device. The book can be read on a PC, Mac or phone. This book can be reached by clicking on the image below or with my earlier books on

my Author Page: http://amazon.com/author/mikesmetzer

 

front cover - Walking Among the Waves by Mike Smetzer

Phil’s Funeral: A Short Story Set in South Portland, Maine

July 6, 2018

 

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

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

“Movvve it!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Trudy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was Phil French?” I asked.

“No. Don’t think so,” said Wes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once we left the service we had a huddle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you enjoy it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I heard he died.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trudy insists Phil is headed for hell.”

“She would! I’ve heard them fight.”

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

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

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

“Never saw him give anyone a kind look.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No one knows who we are inside.”

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

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

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

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

 

 
Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

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

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

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

June 29, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernie chewed on his Danish awhile before looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, we had to plead our own case.”

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

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

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

“I seem to.”

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

“God’s bored, Bro.”

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

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

Bernie laughed.

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

“But you do think God exists?”

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

“And you don’t pray, Bernie?”

Bernie looked over at me and smiled.

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

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

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

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

The One Who Saw God: A Short Story for Spring

April 20, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack dialed 911 on his cell. No connection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is Jehovah,” Elias whispered to himself.

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

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

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

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

Jack reached over and began scanning the channels again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going home!” cried Tom.

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

Jack and another man grabbed Tom and held him back.

“Elias must have a cellar,” cried Bud.

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

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

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

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

“Let’s get in the gully!” cried Bud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

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

 

Angel with the Book - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Angel with the Book – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

 

Prayer to the God Who Keeps House in my Shoes

April 1, 2018

Help me to accept myself.  To accept the path I have found to walk.  To accept each fall and rise of that path.  To accept myself and my path as one.

I am not asking for a beautiful and surprising path.  Any true path will be beautiful and surprising.  I am not asking for a great prize at its end.  The prize I seek on my walk is already in the walker.

I do ask for awareness of my steps.  To feel my feet in my shoes meet the ground.  To feel my spirit move with my body.  To feel my body and spirit move with the Spirit of the world.  I ask to have my eyes see, my ears hear, my nose smell, my tongue taste, my skin touch.  Keep me alert to all the people, all the animals, all the plants.  And to all the seemingly lifeless forms of earth, water, and air.

Walk me through the world of my perceptions.  Fit my shoes to a spirit as gentle as a meandering stream.  Give me corns and blisters for my path until my feet become as discerning as the eyes of a crow.

Give me enough pain to respond to my needs.  Give me enough pleasure to tame my desires.  Give me enough compassion to feel the pain of others.  Give me enough kinship to celebrate communal joy.

Keep me walking my path without fear or shame.  With my share of folly but not with great folly.  With my share of seriousness but not with great seriousness.  Keep my body and spirit in balance.  Teach me to plant my steps on the spot of the path now before me, the only place and time where I can think or act.

 

First published in Brother Michael This Morning.

 

Mom Was Always Big in the Church - photo by Bernie Smetzer

Mom Was Always Big in the Church – photo by Bernie Smetzer

How to be an Effective God

December 18, 2017

I woke up this morning and realized I no longer want to be a man. I want to be a god. I believe I could be the most effective god ever imagined.

It’s easy. Just give people a big ugly zit on the nose every time they tell a lie. Just that would turn humanity from a race of liars to a race of truth tellers. Not by appealing to moral virtue, which has never worked, but by appealing to vanity, which has never failed.