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Paul Smith
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Best Ever

by

Paul Smith

 

There were barricades at the corner of our street.

Plus, as we looked further, there were more of them at Greenleaf, Conrad, all the way up to Gross Point Road.

“Whatever for?” Gloria said.

I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to disappoint her. They were too new and shiny to be construction barricades, and the street had been paved last year, anyway.  They were plastic or fiberglass, Village barricades, the kind that cordon off a block party. But our street had too much traffic for a block party.  It had to be a parade.

“A parade.”

“What parade?”

What parade, indeed?  The Fourth of July was a month away.

“The parade of the clowns,” I said.

“I never heard of that.”

But it was. We were recruited, like everyone on the block. We dressed up and rode unicycles and juggled.  The Village hired a marching band. Those of us that played instruments made music. It was hot in that tramp outfit, but I had a trombone and we did “That’s Aplenty” over and over. We saw the people we hadn’t seen in years, people we thought that had died. We threw candy at them from floats.

Then we floated away and joined them.

When it was over, we were sad it had ended so quickly. We’d hoped it would last longer.  The weather had been perfect, but now it was overcast. We wished we could have just gone to bed and forgot about it, but there were hours of TV to watch, so we stayed up and made popcorn, pretending it was still fun.

Only our son was happy. “This was the best funeral ever,” he said.

 


christmastale.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson © 2015

A Christmas Tale of Hope Retold

 

by Paul Smith

 

 

When Christopher woke up the morning of December twenty-fifth on the third floor of the apartment building, light flooded into his room.  Not bright direct light, but a softer, filtered kind.  He slowly got up, looked at the windows which were nearly opaque, covered with frost.  It had gotten very cold and now there was frost covering everything.  Pretty soon the sun would rise, and the frost would melt.  It wouldn’t take long.   So what?  What was he going to do today, anyway?  Laundry, groceries, maybe a club in the evening.

 

He crossed the room to inspect the window.  The frost had completely covered one pane.  He had to admit it was pretty, a combination of herringbone filigree and snowflake design.  He thought about what it would take to create something this beautiful, and his mind went blank.

 

But wait.

 

He looked closer.  He could make out a pattern.  What was it?  Christopher inspected the window closer.  There was a building, bodies, animals.  He couldn’t believe it.  No one would believe it.

 

Outlined in the frost on his windowpane was the Nativity scene from the Bible, complete with the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, Christ the King, the Magi, the stable of Bethlehem, the animals.  Even the star that guided the Magi was present in the frost.

 

This was a miracle.

 

He stood back, dumbfounded.  Christopher hadn’t been to church in years.  Now a flood of memories overcame him…his family far away, the sound of Christmas carols, the promise that the world was going to be saved by a tiny child.  All of that replaced by what had evolved into this thing he called his life.

 

He had to show this to somebody.

 

The closest person was David the Jew, on the second floor.  Even a Jew could appreciate the Christ Child.  So what if the Jews betrayed Christ and turned Him over to Pontius Pilate to be crucified?  So what if they didn’t believe in Him?  Hmmm. Maybe seeing David the Jew wasn’t such a hot idea. Nuts. He knocked on David’s door.

 

David was eating bagels when Christopher came in.  “Lox, cream cheese?” David offered.  “I’ve got the works.”  Christopher explained he had to see his window, and the two of them climbed back up the stairs to Christopher’s apartment, and Christopher pointed to the window.

 

David approached the window, eyes wide open, taking it all in, transfixed.  How could this be?  “The Temple of Jerusalem,” he pronounced, “Sitting on the Dome of the Rock.  I see the golden dome, the hexagon of blue and gray rising from the square where thousands of worshippers praise God.  We must share this with others.”

 

But when Christopher went to look at the window, he still saw the Nativity in all its glory, the Holy Family, the manger, the Magi.  The animals, however, were less clear than they had been as the sun rose.  In the corner of the window pane was a drop of water.  The frost was melting.  Christopher had to hurry and find someone to show this to before it was gone.  He couldn’t explain why David saw something different.  Maybe it was all those bagels.

 

Karl the Communist lived on the first floor.  Christopher saw less of Karl than he did of David.  Karl went to peoples’ rallies downtown, read extensively, and if you engaged him in a conversation about anything – the weather, the World Cup, Lady Gaga, he turned to proselytizing about how the revolution would eliminate everything you knew and replace it with something better.  Christopher tried to avoid him.  He knocked on Karl the Communist’s door.

 

Karl was drinking a bottle of vodka, as he did every morning.  His stereo played “Song of the Volga Boatmen” by the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra on a  record smuggled out of the Soviet Union (not Russia) when Brezhnev was president.

 

“Na-zda-ro-vye!” Karl said as he opened the door.  Since this was the only Russian Christopher knew, he replied in kind.  “Na-zda-ro-vye, comrade!”

They shared a vodka.  “Karl, you must come up to my apartment and see this wonder.”  And Karl the Communist climbed two flights of stairs to see what Christopher was talking about, bringing along the bottle of vodka.

 

Karl approached the window, looked at it from various angles and then stood back in appreciation.  “Neighbor, this is beyond anything I have ever seen or read about.  This is so miraculous I might even burn all my books.  The most perfect portrait of Red Square I have ever seen.”

 

“Red Square?” Christopher and David shouted.  “There is no Red Square there!” 

 

“Yes!” he pointed.  “Here is St. Basil’s!  Here is the president’s house.  Here are all the streets converging on the square and here is the proletariat marching to reform the world.”  So they squabbled about what they saw in the icy window, each sure of his view in the frost, which continued to melt.  As Christopher watched the sun rise further, the animals were barely visible, and the manger was beginning to lose its shape.  The only person left in the building that might appreciate this lived in the basement - Nathan the atheist, a dour unhappy person that Christopher avoided even more than Karl.  Nathan rarely smiled, rarely climbed out of the cellar, and when he spoke, it was with a forced cheerfulness that resulted, as Christopher saw it, from a belief that nothing really existed at all, and, by the strength of his will he could impose the straightjacket of nihilism on the rest of a grateful but dubious universe.  Christopher left David and Karl to their bagels and vodka and went to get Nathan.

 

He knocked on Nathan’s door. Nathan was wearing a black turtleneck sweater, black pants and black underwear (or so Christopher imagined).  He strained a smile.  Unlike Karl the Communist, no music played.  The apartment was silent.

 

“Nathan, come with me.”

 

They climbed the three flights of stairs to Christopher’s apartment. The door swung open.

 

“What have you brought us to eat?” Karl and David cried.  “We’re hungry and thirsty!”

 

“Nothing,” Nathan shrugged, approaching the window.  Christopher was crestfallen.  The frost had melted.  There was nothing left.  But Nathan investigated, said nothing, finally turning away from the window.  He took Christopher’s hand, shook it and said, “Thank you, friend.”

 

Christopher, Karl and David all went to the window to see what Nathan saw. 

 

And there it was outside – the majestic green-blue steeple of St. Alphonsus Church, radiant above Lincoln Avenue, with tiny crosses rising into the Christmas morning, limestone facing the nave, and red brick leading to the sacristy behind.  People streamed out of it from ten o’clock Mass.  “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” proclaimed Nathan.  “I see nothing from my basement.

 

“We’re hungry!” cried David and Karl.  “What have you brought us?”

 

So the four men decided to get something to eat at the Vietnamese restaurant across the street from their apartment, ate egg rolls and sugarcane shrimp, after which they talked about what they would do with the rest of Christmas Day.

 

“I’m ordering more egg rolls,” said David the Jew.  “They are better than bagels.”

 

“I’m going to Mass at St. Alphonsus,” said Karl with a sigh.  “Those people looked so happy.”

“I’m moving out of my basement and studying architecture,” Said Nathan.

 

“And you, Christopher?” they all asked Christopher, “What are you going to do?”

 

“I’m asking out our cute Vietnamese waitress,” he pointed to the girl who had brought them their egg rolls and sugarcane shrimp, who, after a moment of thinking about it, accepted his invitation to go for a walk down Lincoln Avenue and look at the Christmas lights when she got off work.

 

So the four men went their separate ways as a star rose that evening over Lincoln Avenue.

 

 

“A Christmas Tale of Hope Retold” originally appeared in the 2013 Summer-Fall Issue of Rockford Review, No. XXXII, No. 2, entitled “Visceral.”




grandfather1.jpg
Art by Bill Zbylut © 2016

Things My Grandfather Said

by Paul Smith

 

My grandfather on my mother’s side was German.  After World War II, when we lived on the same block, Germans were not very popular.  I didn’t know that at the time.  All I knew was that grandfather had retired early and had time on his hands.  So we were together a lot, walking around our neighborhood.  The area was full of veterans who had been in the War, came home to Skokie, built houses that looked alike, and enjoyed prosperity.  With all the new homes, there were plenty of basements excavated for grandpa to look at.  He’d stare at the holes and sometimes ask the construction men questions.  Once they detected his accent, they said little.

He liked a bar near Touhy & Kostner where they had a parrot.  The parrot fascinated me, and granddad would buy me ginger ale.  He knew the bartender.   I liked the darkness of the bar, the murky shadows of the men, the smell of things my nose wasn’t that familiar with, the wood walls.  Here, granddad’s silence didn’t seem to matter much.  Most of the men here were his age, and they were quiet, like him.  I was a novelty, a preschooler, and I began to think that silence was natural.  I decided that I should pay attention to whatever he said, because first and foremost I loved him, and second, I thought he might say something really important.

He also took me to a grocery store nearby, not a big supermarket, a neighborhood store.  He would go to look at the fish, which all stared back at us, sitting on a bed of ice.

“Why do we come to look at the fish, grandpa?” I would ask.

“To see if there’s anybody I know.”

He always said the same thing, and it always made me laugh.  He had trouble with English, and I think he settled for just a few things to say that ‘worked.’  This was one of them.

We moved from Kenneth Avenue when I was five.  It was never explained.  Dad said it was because we needed a bigger house.  I always thought it had to do with grandma and grandpa, and mom and dad wanting to get away from them.  Our new neighborhood wasn’t built up much, and I was lonely.  Then my uncle died, mom’s only brother.  He was quiet, like grandpa, and he drank too.   Mom said he learned that in the army.

We still saw grandma and grandpa.  Sunday dinners were awfully popular then.  You ate around three o’clock, a big heavy meal that stuffed you.  If you went to church at nine with your folks, the whole day was shot. It wasn’t even like a weekend day, no matter how much you wanted it to be.  Grandma talked a lot with mom, and grandpa rarely said anything.  One Sunday afternoon, at the table, the conversation turned to the War.  Dad said the War, ‘all in all’, had been good for us because we won and now the economy was good.  He said our new house and his steady work were proof.

“Never generalize,” grandpa said. 

He had a poker face and said nothing after that.  It was one of those things that either meant nothing or meant something to him, like him expecting to meet a fish he knew in the market.  I came to the conclusion that some things get said not for what they mean, but maybe just to bookmark an event, to make it last in our memories, so we keep it separate from other things and treasure it.

Grandpa died in St. Francis Hospital one December.  I was at the university, right here in town.  On that evening I visited grandma before I went to see him in the hospital.  She was cheerful.   My visit was to see how he was doing after a surgery.  We all took turns.  It was a chilly evening with the stars out and a cold wind.  With Christmas a week or so away, there was the expectation of a quiet, reserved joy in the spirit of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.  At the stoplight before St. Francis, a car full of girls my age motioned me to roll down my car window.  I did, and they laughed at me.  The wind blew into the car like a cold wake-up call.  They shrieked with delight.

I walked in grandpa’s room and found him dead.  I shook him.  He didn’t move.

I found a doctor in the hall, who confirmed what I knew.  Grandpa was dead.  The doctor had a bad stutter.

“Your – your – your grandfather ha- ha- had a goo- goo- good life.  D- d- d- don’t feel bad.”

Whenever I drive by the corner of Oakton and Ridge in Evanston I think of the girls waving at me to roll down my window.  X marks the spot.  In winter, I avoid that corner if I can.

END

grandfather2.jpg
Art by Bill Zbylut © 2016

The Earth Will Inherit the Week

by Paul Smith

 

“So this is it?”

“Yes.”

“The place you were telling me about?”

“This is it.”

“Nothing special here. I don’t follow you. There is this line of electrical transmission towers. There is a highway. There are railroad tracks paralleling the highway. All of them disappear up ahead. What’s so special?”

“Each one taken alone, nothing. But all taken together, they mean something.”

“What do they mean?”

“I don’t know. I’m just drawn here. The thing is that we live just a mile away. I can feel a gravitational or magnetic pull here. Can’t you feel it?”

“I feel nothing.”

“You must!”

“I’m not touchy-feely like you are.”

“OK. I won’t push it. But we are somewhat alike. I just thought—”

“A power line soars overhead, its wires cackling at the sun. Below, a road follows it to where the horizon swallows them. A railroad tracks them with sinewy rails, eager to see what leads them on, knowing that all three will vanish into the empty curvature of earth. All parallel lines converge at infinity. All of us who think we are different converge to where we are the same. A wet bird never flies at midnight. A chocolate sundae is a brown way to start the week. The meek will inhibit the earth.  No, there’s nothing unusual about this place.”

“So you still don’t agree?”

“If you find that people agree with what you say, they are probably trying to get you to shut up.”

“Let’s go home.”

 


actofkindness.jpg
Art by Lonni Lees © 2016

An Act of Kindness

Paul Smith

 

I hurried out of the cold into the dark mystery of St. Peter’s confessional and got started. “Confess me Father, for I have sinned,” I began.  I felt uneasy.

“Go ahead, Miguel,” the voice behind the partition said.  It was a comforting and familiar voice. “Go on,” the voice repeated. Still, I didn’t like it.

“I missed Mass since my last confession.”

“Yes?”

“And I killed two guys after I beat them up.”

“How many?”

“Three,” I sighed.

 “That is Number Six, a bad number.  Much worse than missing Mass, Number Four.”

“Other than that, I haven’t done much wrong.”

 “You had such good ways, Mikey.”

“I know.”

Then the confessional at Saint Peter’s Church on Madison Street went silent.  It always does after I unload my heavy heart on Father Ruiz.  He’s a good guy.  The priests all took an oath. They don’t blab what they hear in the box.  They have principles.  It’s like if you’re a bank robber and want sanctuary, you can go into a bar and the police can’t arrest you there. That’s a principle of law enforcement. They have to wait for you to come out. At least that’s what I heard.  I think a church is the same-you can get sanctuary in a church.  I always come here to St. Pete’s.  No one here knows me, except Father Ruiz.  Back at Saint Agnes, they know my voice and everything.  So does Father Ruiz, but he can be trusted. I waited for my penance. I hated the smell of church– formal, stiff-necked, high and mighty. It reminded me of home.

“For your penance, say three Our Fathers and Three Hail Marys.”  Father Ruiz paused. ”And do an act of kindness, Mikey.”

“A what?”

“An act of kindness, to show your appreciation to Our Lord for the miracle of absolution, especially now, as we approach the special feast day of when He came to save us.”

“He did?”

“Yes, Mikey! In three days, it is the Feast of Christmas. How good it is you are reconciling yourself to His mercy.”

“I am?”

Father Ruiz sighed. I act like a complete pendéjo. But nobody died for my sins.  I will one day. Let’s leave it at that. “Sure, Father,” I said.

“And you are not planning any more Number Sixes later on, are you, Miguel?”

“Oh, certainly not, father.”

“Be straight with me, Mikey.  Otherwise it’s a Number Nine.”

“I’m being straight!”

“Nothing planned for Calixto Diaz?”

 “No, nothin’s planned for that rat with two legs.”

“Then the Lord is merciful.  Say your Act of Contrition.”

I had a little paper with me to read from so I wouldn’t seem like a complete heathen.  I read my Act of Contrition.  It was complete mumbo-jumbo.  I’d been an altar boy once, and a crossing guard.  I bought into the entire Catholic spiel when I was young and at home.  Thanks, mom and dad.

I finished my Act of Contrition. Father Ruiz seemed happy. “Go, Miguelito, and avoid occasions of sin, like Calixto Diaz.”

“Thank you, Father,” I said. “And don’t tell mom.”

The air outside on Madison Street was crisp and brisk.  Chicago’s Loop is a dirty place. You can smell the dirt everywhere.  Newspapers and candy wrappers blow down the street.  That part is depressing. Then you see people scurry from corner to corner to get in warm buildings, duck under the El and up the stairs to get to their train. That part is better—signs of life. It was good to be alive. I was free of the awful things I’ve done, even if it was just till tonight when I blow away that rat Calixto Diaz for double-crossing me on some weed. Act of kindness my ass! Maybe I’d just finish him off without pulling his teeth out first. That should put a smile on Saint Peter’s sour puss. My soul felt as clean as Madison Street—a swirl of debris blown out of the air by the wind of absolution.

I went home, put some ammo in my Sig Sauer and waited for sundown. I still qualified for Heaven at this point, having not killed anyone since leaving St. Pete’s on Madison. I loved St. Pete’s.  You come up on it, walking, and see the tall brass doors, and you know you’re in the House of God. If you look up, which anyone hardly does, you see a gigantic crucifix. It’s like going back to your childhood, but better. I used to go Mass with the family at Saint Agnes, an old, run down church in pale brick that had seen better days. Inside it was worse. It had that stuffiness of humility we were forced to swallow from birth—a pearly white altar and stained glass faces with perfect round halos.  I stopped coming years ago. It turned out Saint Agnes wasn’t from Spain or Mexico. She was from Bohemia! So I packed my Sig Sauer and a pair of electrician’s pliers.  They don’t slip when you yank out a molar.

As soon as it got dark, I knew where to look for Calixto Diaz. I headed to 26th Street. It started to snow. All was still. The City put pairs of red plastic fake bells on the streetlights. The lights shone through the plastic semi-transparency of the bells, making them look festive as the snow fell.  All was bright. Calixto would be at Cazadores on Trumbull or El Changito. Then I saw him, coming up Central Park, jangling along with some bling on his neck.

“Hey, Calix,” I said, approaching him from behind.

“Hey, bro,” he said without turning around.

“Take a left at this alley, bro.”

I followed him to the alley. He knew I had a gun. Sleep in heavenly peace, bro.

“Turn around, asshole,” I said. 

Calixto turned around. His face looked like a balloon the air just went out of. All that swagger a minute was gone. The flashy pants, the vest, the fancy lid, all meant zero.  “Hey, listen, about last week, I can explain.”

They always can explain.

“Come on, Mikey,” he said.

“I got that weed on credit.”

“I’m done with all that. Give me a break.”

“An act of kindness,” I said, mocking Father Ruiz.

“Yeah, kindness.” His nose started running, either out of fear or too much toot, one or the other. We were alike, working the same tired hustle. “I know I double-crossed you. I was desperate. I’m sorry.”

Forgiveness!  What a concept. I had a gun.

“OK, bro,” I forgive you. “Know what I’m gonna do?  I’m gonna blow your brains out without fucking you up first. You can thank your lucky stars.”

“No, no,” he slobbered.  He was pathetic. I took a good look at what hung on his neck. Usually it was a gold chain thick enough to tow an eighteen wheeler. He wasn’t wearing that. Instead he had on a string of Christmas ornaments – red and green globes, stars, a manger, a cross. He had taken every symbol of Christmas I grew up with and turned them into jewelry celebrating vice. What a pagan! My hand with the Sig Sauer dropped carelessly to my side as I stood there dumbfounded.

“Thank you, you mother fucking piece of shit.”

Those were the last words I heard as lead poured through my body. Last words from two-legged rat Calixto Diaz. I had mixed feelings. The bullets stung a bit. I was going to heaven, I guessed. I hadn’t offed anyone since my last confession. But Eduardo, my own fucking brother had either tipped off Calixto Diaz or saved my eternal ass by getting me to do an act of kindness. It was good to be dead. Those bullets came out of my backside without a trace of sin – original, mortal, venial or any other kind. The silent snow kept falling.

Maybe Eduardo will tell mom.

END


Paul Smith writes poetry & fiction. He lives in Skokie, Illinois with his wife Flavia. Sometimes he performs poetry at an open mic in Chicago. He believes that brevity is the soul of something he read about once, and whatever that something is or was, it should be cut in half immediately.

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