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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



placeforgrandpa.jpg
Art by M. R. Sonntag © 2018

A Place for Grandpa

Paul Smith

 

A garage is a good place for lots of things – ladders, lawnmowers, rakes, hedge trimmers, cans of paint, even cars. Early in a marriage a man can find comfort in the garage fixing things up, making them better, killing time, storing things. A man has certain needs, to build, to create, to maintain, to justify his own existence by doing something, even if it’s just looking busy. As the marriage blossoms, there are gifts. There is love, which is a gift. There are children, which can be considered gifts. There is romance. There is silence in which a man can ponder the wonders of life, its mysteries, its subtle ironies. There are gifts on special days like the wedding anniversary, Mother’s Day, Her Birthday, any day she deems it necessary that a gift be purchased. And a garage can be a serviceable place to ‘store’ the gift on its journey from a department store to the car to her loving hands, her wrist or neck. Hence it can function like a ‘transfer station’ she is never aware of. Later in the matrimony both parties may discover that slyness and subterfuge serve their interests best when doing things the other party needn’t know about. For example, buying a booster seat for a visiting grandchild evolves from the simple task of shopping to a chess game of ‘who hid the booster seat’ if certain events converge

‘Certain events’ may include the fact that their son specified what kind of booster seat was to be bought. They may include that the grandson’s dad’s dad knows that if he buys what his son has specified, the grandson’s son’s mom (grandma) will angrily claim the grandson’s dad’s dad (grandpa) is cheap and should buy a much more expensive booster seat. But he may ignore this bit of intuition and buy the cheap one anyway. Since she is right (always) about the penury of her spouse, he (the grandson’s dad’s dad) may resort to trickery, the kind of trickery that may even evolve to the hiding and disposal of a body, though not yet. Realizing all this, grandpa may slyly conclude he should get the right booster seat and swap it out for the wrong one he hastily purchased, far from grandma’s prying eyes. He does this in the garage. And having done this successfully, grandpa has now established the fact that the garage is quite useful as a transfer station for anything he desires to transfer, including the aforementioned body.

Accidents do happen. That is another fact just as certain as a garage functioning as a transfer station. Accidents cause death. That is also an established fact. Gary Ashbrook died of asphyxiation in a humongous condom after pulling it over his head and filling it with nitrous oxide. Diana Durre died in Nebraska when a giant taco Bell sign fell on her pickup truck, crushing her. Rebecca Metzger died after a pressurized canister of whipped cream struck her in the chest. Hammers rarely kill people by accident. Puneet Kaur died in the Indian state of Haryana at an amusement park after her hair became tangled in the wheels of a go-kart.  Jimmy Ferrozzo, a bouncer, died at the Condor Club in San Francisco while engaging in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend Theresa Hill on a grand piano that was lowered from the ceiling by a hydraulic motor, accidentally activating the lifting mechanism which pinned him against the ceiling leading to his suffocation. Jeremy Brenno was killed on a golf course when, frustrated, he struck a bench with a 3-wood golf club. The shaft broke, bounced back at him, and pierced his heart. Again, no hammers.

When a man builds his own garage, he normally builds it to his own specifications. If his previous garage had a little light above the shelves near the store-room, he will want the same for his new garage. Or if his old garage didn’t have such a light, he will bemoan its absence and make sure he has it in his new one. ‘Let there be light!’ his argument will go. And he will take pride in using this handy device every time he needs to go to the shelf or the storeroom to store or retrieve a tool, a gift, a hammer or to drop off a body.

If, however, an altercation arises in the matrimony where there is no malice  aforethought or premeditated attempt to maim or dismember, solely the convergence of the vectors of surprise and shock, and a hammer is present, a death may occur that could be considered accidental by one group of twelve or murder by another. At which point the garage may be a handy place to store a body, grandma’s body, until the police leave because, yes, they are coming. Grandma has just called them because grandpa has raised his voice at her quarrelsomeness and chatter regarding a booster seat, and grandpa hears the sirens. So with utmost haste, and strength generated by the necessity of the moment, grandpa may hurriedly rush grandma’s dead form out to the garage, say hi to the neighbors barbecuing next door and stash her in the storeroom till the fuzz leave, spin a yarn to them about how grandma took a powder after calling them on grandpa, and should be back soon—maybe in a week or so.

And in these matters grandpa has proved to be quite naïve. Not that the neighbors squealed on grandpa—they didn’t care much for grandma with her noise and chat either. Not that the police thought about waiting around a week or so for grandma to show up. What did grandpa in was the little light he was so proud of near the shelves and the storeroom. When the police came and asked where grandma might be and grand-dad shrugged they got curious and said ‘Do you mind if we look around? She might be hiding.’ And in the course of that, they might see a faint glow in the evening emanating from the garage and say something further like ‘Been in your garage lately?’ which, of course, drew a negative response from grandpa, which they expected. Then a visit to the garage turned up grandma with a hammer still in her skull and to an arrest, a conviction and a trip to a chair with a light over it which reminded grandpa of his garage. We all visited him on his last, wished him well in the dim basement of a building that served as a transfer station for souls from this world to the next, and wept our eyes out as that tiny light suddenly exploded with incandescence and grandpa’s light went out for good.

As for the booster seat, my ass never fit in it correctly. If grandpa had simply listened to that little voice in his head that told him he should listen to grandma’s voice all this never would have happened. Now, with grandma and grandpa gone, dad has the house and the garage and the booster seat, which now has a new little keister in it since dad acquired grandpa’s habit of storing gifts in there on their way to mom. And mom rewarded dad for this nice hammerless house and bountiful garage with something that arrived in nine months. But I don’t really like my baby brother. One of these days I’ll take him out back and show him another one of grandpa’s hammers.



The Placebo Effect

 

By Paul Smith

 

Bill put the gun inside his vest and went downstairs. She was still there. Anna said she was going out for some pain pills, but it had started raining. That was as good an excuse as any to keep her from going out. She had these migraine attacks once in a while. They often started when it rained. Then again, when the sun came out that could trigger a migraine attack. Bill was getting tired of it. She was semi-slumped on the sofa. She had one of those black daytime sleeping masks over her eyes, making her sort of look like the Lone Ranger. She couldn’t see anything he was doing right now as the rain fell. He could take the gun out of his vest and wave it right in her face. She wouldn’t see a thing. Somewhere the dog slept.

“Want me to get that Tylenol?” he asked.

“Why else would you be going out?”

“Get some fresh air.”

“In this rain? You call it getting some air? I can’t go out. Enjoy yourself, then. I might as well just sit here on this sofa and die.”

She might as well just die. Life wasn’t fun anymore. But then the migraines passed and she would be sunny and cheerful for a while. This was part of their cohabitative lifestyle, Bill guessed. He thought it would be different.

What exactly happens when a bullet enters the brain? As the bullet travels from the cranium and through the brain tissues, it causes laceration to the brain parenchyma and also produces multiple high energy fragmentation, resulting in shattered skull bone and bullet's pieces, which leads to more injury. Not only does it damage the brain parenchyma, it also ruptures the blood vessels leading to formation of intracranial hematoma. So there is blood everywhere. This is usually followed by cerebral edema, and raised intracranial pressure. Victim usually dies from profuse intracranial bleeding or direct injury to the deep structures such as brainstem. Plus, there is a lot of yelling and screaming.

Bill liked the sofa. They bought it at Grace’s Furniture near Logan Square. Grace’s was still there, after all these years. All these years she’d had these migraines. All these years he’d gotten used to his helpless reaction to her disabilities. Anna and Bill and Grace had aged together. They’d aged gracefully, he thought! That was a good one. He nearly laughed. Their roof went drip drip drip. It would be hard getting blood out of that sofa.

“Not saying much, are you? I do appreciate it, though, you going out. Those pills will help. They haven’t so far, but you know what?”

He was expected to say something. “What?”

Anna removed the sleep mask and stood up. “I believe in the law of averages. I think that if you take Tylenol twenty-nine times, then maybe fourteen and a half times it will help you.”

“The placebo effect,” he said.

“No,” she said. “That’s psychological. That’s when your mind is just programmed to believe something good will happen. This is different. This has to do with the chemical makeup of a Tylenol pill and how it affects your system. It’s either in the pill that Johnson and Johnson made or something in your bloodstream. I don’t know. I think too much. I’ve been reading Nausea by Sartre. It gave me a splitting headache.”

Anna thought too much. Bill didn’t like that. He avoided the Great Books because in his estimation it only led to depression and suicide.

A bullet can destroy the shoulder joint rendering that arm permanently crippled. It could sever nerves in the shoulder or arm partially or completely paralyzing it. Or it could shatter the humerus bone meaning extensive surgery and bone grafts would have to be done to repair it. It could do lots of damage, but wouldn’t necessarily result in death, just pain and disfigurement. Or you could develop a blood infection from the wound and suffer organ failure or die. There was always that chance. Plus yelling, of course.

Bill looked at his vest to see if there was a bulge. Nothing. Then he checked the front of his pants. No bulge there either. Hadn’t been one there in quite a while. But the gun had not made a bulge, none that she could see.

“When you go out, can you take Bowser for a walk? He needs to get out too.”

Bowser was her dog, not his. She sweet-talked him into getting her a dog several years ago. Now the apartment smelled bad, there was dog hair everywhere inside, dog poo outside. He had to carry a pooper-scooper whenever they went out. Plus he had to buy dog food. Bowser was a pit bull, which meant he better not lay a hand on Anna, or else. Bowser made him feel emasculated.

“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

Anna got up as the rain continued to pound their second story flat. The gray Chicago afternoon had settled in like a lodger that refused to budge, that refused to take a hint to pack its bags and go somewhere else. She came up to him, threw her arms around him and kissed him right on his mouth, pressing her body against his. “You are so good,” she said. “Sometimes these headaches are so awful I can’t control what I say or do. You understand, don’t you, Bill?”

He didn’t understand a fucking thing about her. “Sure.”

“And when you come back, I’ll give you a nice dessert,” she smiled.

“A nice dessert,” he repeated. “With chocolate sauce?”

“With chocolate sauce, whipped cream and,” she put her forefinger to her lips for emphasis, “A big red cherry.”

“A big red cherry,” he repeated. “Come on, Bowser,” he said. “We’re going for a walk.” They slid out the door together.

“Wait,” she said, as the door slammed behind them. “You forgot the pooper scooper!”

He smiled. There was no need for a pooper-scooper. Bill had heard that the safest place to get shot was the buttocks. That was the body's largest muscle. Muscle tissue, when torn or damaged, can take a long time to heal, and the pain can be immense. So there were pluses and minuses to it. He opened the car door, and Bowser scampered in. Bill had also heard that once you take down a gun you can’t put it back without shooting it. It was some kind of universal law. Anna would know where it came from. She would say it was probably a law that some old Russian dreamed up as he was about to go into a duel.  Then there was the law of averages. The law of averages stated that sometimes things happen, sometimes they don’t. Maybe sometimes you take a gun down with the intention of looking your target square in the eye and then pulling the trigger, blowing them to smithereens.

And then, maybe nothing happens.

Bill stopped the car in the rain near an empty field on the way to the pharmacy. “Get out, Bowser.” The dog got out and patiently stood there in the rain as Bill undid his vest and pulled out his Sig Sauer.

“Now turn around, Bowser, so I can look you in your buttocks.” Bowser did not understand a word. Maybe Bowser had migraines like his mistress. Maybe he was just plain stupid. Maybe he knew he had it coming—guilt by association. In any case, Bowser was not budging in this damn rain. So Bill went and stood behind him, looked him square in the buttocks and pulled the trigger. The nice thing about Bowser was that he wouldn’t yell.

Click. Nothing.  He must have forgotten to load the fucking thing. Damn.

“Well, Bowser,” he said aloud. “Your number’s not up, I guess.  Let’s see, the law about taking down a gun and firing it has been followed to the letter. And the law of averages has been followed, too. Some of the time you pull the trigger and a bullet comes out. Sometimes there is no bullet. Check. And the placebo effect law has been followed too. By unsuccessfully trying to teach you a lesson I settled something down in my craw that’s been bugging me a long time. She has been bugging me a long time with her hypochondria and sniveling and crying and her damn sleep mask. And you, Bowser,” he added. “You bug me too.”

Bill’s eyes met Bowser’s. “Now I’m going to get a treat,” he told the dog. “Not a doggie treat. A grownup treat. With a big red cherry.”

He bought the Tylenol as Bowser waited in the car. The thought of that cherry waiting for him, or maybe just him pronouncing the word ‘cherry’ caused a bulge in the front of his pants. Bill tried to remember if they had Maraschino cherries back in the apartment. He wasn’t sure so he stopped again on the way home and bought some. No sense in testing the law of averages twice in one day. The sun came out and they went home.






The Sicilian Doctor’s Tale

Paul Smith

 

 

The toilet was plugged up. I had left the bathroom, came back, and there it was – a still pool of murky water, staring back at me. I flushed the toilet a second time. Maybe it just didn’t hear me the first time. That didn’t work. I tried again.  Nothing.

What do you do when a toilet is unresponsive – give it mouth-to-mouth?

No. Nor do you yell it at for fear of waking up Her in the bedroom sleeping.  Silence is best. Unfortunately, something had to be done. Unfortunately, I was the one who had to do something. I was the last one who used the toilet. I looked again at the toilet bowl. Unresponsive, murky water. I could call a plumber or a urologist. Expensive. There had to be a way out. We had a toilet bowl plunger in the basement. It would get all coated with you know what and then I’d have to clean it off. I could do nothing. That was an option. I could just walk away from it and say it never happened. I could blame Her if She tried blaming me. I could avoid her and the toilet altogether, have nothing to do with it until it somehow got fixed, maybe by Her.

What kind of man would do a thing like that? I’d been to several movies lately and thought of the men in them. In one movie I just saw, there was a young guy in a fast car driving on a winding, mountainous road. He comes upon a country bumpkin driving a pickup truck very slowly. The bumpkin screws with him, not letting him pass. But the young man finally does pass the bumpkin and flips him off and laughs. Later the young guy gets a flat tire. The bumpkin catches up to him just as the fast young guy in the smart car is nearly finished changing the tire. He confronts him. The young fellow hides in the car. Was I that kind of guy? Then the bumpkin smashes the smart car’s windows, the young guy pushes the pickup truck into a ravine, the men fight and eventually there is a big explosion and both men die. Great movie.

Was I the wimpy young man who hid in his car while the bumpkin smashed the windows and took a shit on the smart car while the young guy hid? I hoped not.  So I decided to think of another movie.

In another movie there is a big tough, beefy gangster who is extorting money from a wishy-washy schlemiel. The beefy gangster wants to break his arms and legs, but instead brings in a scarecrow from the fields and shoots it to pieces in front of the schlemiel’s house. Eventually the schlemiel pays up. That’s the kind of tough guy I want to be – a tough but smart guy who shoots scarecrows and lets other people clean up plugged up toilets.

The gangster explained to the schlemiel, “See that-a dog? It could-a be you.”

Satisfied, I went about my business in the house, carefully avoiding the toilet and any mention of it. She got up, went to the bathroom, and later on we had breakfast. Who’s to say She didn’t plug it up last night? Women’s bodies are much more complicated than men’s. A man’s body has very simple functions. It is like an old-fashioned toilet with a pull chain. A woman’s body is like a sewage treatment plant, with digesters, aeration tanks, filters, clarifiers and headworks. It is infinitely more complicated and has a multitude of waste byproducts. Logically, She was the one who plugged it up in the first place. Logically, She should step forward and volunteer to unplug it. The beefy gangster in me realized all this, could see through the fallacy of getting the plunger from the basement, and was content to let the situation play itself out.

Which it did. We spent the entire day in silence. Her, making a number of trips to the bathroom, me pretending not to pay attention while I listened for the sounds of flushing. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in silence. We watched television in silence. We went to bed in silence.

In the middle of the night She sat up in bed and said, “Honey?”

“WHAT?”

“Is anything the matter?”

“NO!”

“Why are you screaming?”

“NOTHING!”

“I wanted to tell you about a movie I saw.”

I liked movies. Movies reveal character. I was all ears. Movies have an outside story which is for entertainment purposes, to get you to follow along. And they have an inside story.

“There was this guy. He had erectile dysfunction. So he goes to a doctor and tells the doc about a ‘friend’ of his who can’t get it up. He explains that his friend is too embarrassed to come to the doctor and talk about it, so he volunteered to do this for his ‘friend.’ The doctor said not to worry, erectile dysfunction could be the result of lots of things – poor blood flow, hypertension, an overall feeling of not being manly, wimpiness, low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy around women, guilt that his penis is smaller than average, the worry that he’ll come prematurely and the woman will laugh at his pathetic performance and go out and find a real stud to take his place.”

“So what happens?”

“Well, this big strong man realized that all of this was happening because he was hiding something from his wife. And as soon as he stopped hiding this thing, which wasn’t all that big, his manliness returned and they made passionate love and the movie had a happy ending. “

“They made a movie like that?”

“No, I just made that up. I saw an ad about ED on televison. I know you like movies, so I decided to put it all into a story.”

“Oh,” for a while there I thought she had me.

“Like how you make up stories.”

“I do?”

“Um hmm, like the story you create about the plugged up toilet. There is no plugged up toilet. We know what there is, don’t we?”

“We do?”

“Yes, and it’s alright. I’ve told you.” She turned the light on. “It’s alright, alright if you go see the doctor. See?”

I actually was prepared to go get the plunger.

“You’re a big strong guy on the outside. In the outside world. But this is the inside world. This is the world that I’m pretty good at. Will you do that for me?”

“I don’t make things up.”

She put her hand on my toilet plunger to see if it would, you know, get plunge-worthy. It just sat there like a slippery but lifeless eel.

So there’s this big, beefy gangster type who, for reasons unexplained, stops having erections. He has an understanding wife from Sicily who tells him that lots of men from Sicily have had this problem, and it usually stems from eating angel-hair pasta and sun-dried tomatoes and lots of Chianti. He goes to his Sicilian doctor in Sicily and confesses his problem. The Sicilian doctor puts his arm around the beefy hero’s shoulders and says, ‘I-m-a gonna show you a movie. The guy – he could-a be you.”

And the Sicilian doctor shows him a movie about toilet plungers that explains the whole thing.

It’s in Italian. With subtitles.

-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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