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A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors

A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors

Peter Smith
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors
    Book Description:

    For Peter Smith, the unavoidable mistakes and embarrassments in life—our lesser horrors— are not without their humor, and a healthy dose at that. In this series of funny, honest, and moving pieces, Smith explores a few messy episodes from his own life and uncovers a simple reassurance we should take to heart: we’re all on this wild ride together.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7888-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. South State Street
    (pp. 1-5)

    Thick green oil-based paint covered everything: streetlamps, park railings, drinking fountains, the steel girders of the Illinois Central overpass, and the wood of the Illinois Central station on 144th Street. Everything. Someone had been maintaining Chicago long before my brother and I arrived on the scene, which meant Chicago had been here long before us and was vulnerable to rust and erosion and change. Whoever had preceded us had daubed on the paint so thick that it was softening the shape of things. If Chicago wasn’t rusting, then it was melting. And my brother and I, so recently arrived from...

  5. A Teaspoon of Water
    (pp. 6-9)

    In some other life, when I am some other writer, I am going to have to come to terms with water: to cope with it as a metaphor, to make it flow where and how I want it to flow, sometimes seeming to pour down stairs the way the Gallatin River does in the mountains above Bozeman, Montana, or sometimes barely moving, brooding and moody like a Mississippi River backwater below Winona, Minnesota. In some other life, I am going to have to come to terms with water once and for all. It’s too simple and complex for me now....

  6. Pop’s Wound
    (pp. 10-12)

    It was late on a summer evening on the way home from Aunt Maggie and Uncle Jack’s. I was standing in the back of the car, leaning over the front seat, my older brother riding shotgun. My father was telling us again about the day he was wounded in the war.

    His outfit was making another landing on another South Pacific beach. A Japanese machine gun had them pinned down, and he and another GI were crawling up an embankment to attack the position when an American mortar round fell short. A piece of shrapnel nicked a nerve high in...

  7. A Crisis of Faith
    (pp. 13-18)

    Roman Catholicism as we grew up in it was a peasant’s faith; an urban, industrialized extension of the agrarian religion practiced by generations and centuries of blunt, brooding serfs scattered over the landscape from Ireland to Poland, from Portugal to the Balkans, where it came up against Greek Orthodoxy and Islam, where it—well, balkanized. There was a church every five miles across the old country, whatever old country you happened to be from, and a priest in every church—the representative of a bishop, who was a representative of a cardinal, who was a representative of the pope—one...

  8. The Denunciation
    (pp. 19-22)

    I ratted Steve Geary out to Sister Clotilde after First Holy Communion. I denounced him, as vilely, as weakly, and as abjectly as any human ever exposed another. I have felt terrible about it ever since.

    Sister was a sharp-faced, sharp-tongued, quick and feisty little woman with a nasty streak from a large Irish family. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that some or all of her brothers had fought professionally as welterweights in that era when the Irish still produced great boxers. For that matter, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Sister herself had been a Catholic Youth...

  9. Absolution
    (pp. 23-30)

    If the nuns in parochial school were right all those years ago, then one of these days my soul will depart this cellulite-riddled temple and return to heaven where its maker, Almighty God, will sit in judgment. As I envision it, He will get up and walk around, sizing my soul up and looking it over as if He were the man behind the counter at an equipment rental place and my soul were a power washer I was returning.

    I’ll stand there, hands in my pockets, trying to look innocent. God will rub at a scratch here, rattle a...

  10. Mortality
    (pp. 31-34)

    I was eleven years old and watching a Saturday matinee at the Liberty Theater when I realized I would die someday. Every kid in town was there. Every kid in town went to the movies every week back then. Every Saturday you played outside in the morning, came home, ate lunch, got a quarter from your mother, and raced to the movies as fast as you could.

    The man who owned the theater was about sixty, and every week, before the movie began, he slumped down the aisle wearing the same baggy gray suit—your grandfather’s suit—like the one...

  11. The Man on the Raft
    (pp. 35-41)

    We were sitting on the swimming raft at the lake—ten or twelve of us, a cross-section of the town’s adolescent male population. Twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-olds too young for part-time summer work with a long afternoon to kill.

    “I’m going to the lake, Ma. The guys’ll be there.”

    Lake Coming of Age, where slightly older, more mysterious girls—girls who would be sophomores at high school that fall—spread their towels and lay in the sun, smelling of cocoa butter and baby oil, listening to Top 40 songs on a transistor radio.

    Maybe boys their age had an easier...

  12. Lawnmower Repair
    (pp. 42-47)

    The neighbor was trying to start his lawnmower. No soap. The thing was dead.

    “Why don’t you start it the way my dad starts ours?” my son suggested.

    “How’s that?” the neighbor asked.

    “He kicks it and says, ‘#$%**&*.’”

    I hail from a long line of mechanical Neanderthals, from people fundamentally cross-threaded for mechanics. Other men reach for just the right box wrench and loosen bolts deftly. I can never find the right wrench, so I crimp on an oversized pair of vice grips and inevitably round the top of the bolt to the point where it will be stuck...

  13. The Biscayne
    (pp. 48-58)

    Somewhere in a junkyard in Lake County, Illinois, my father’s once-tan, nine-passenger, 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne station wagon sits rusting and moldering. Any usable parts are long gone, including the wheels, carburetor, generator, pumps, radiator, headlights, radio, and anything else forty years of backyard mechanics might have needed to fix their own Chevrolets. The demand for 1962 Chevrolet parts has abated. Grass—and maybe even a small northern Illinois hawthorn tree—is probably growing up through the engine compartment and floorboards.

    The front bumper is no doubt gone, but I’m fairly sure the back one is still there. There was that...

  14. A Visit to the Doctor
    (pp. 59-63)

    There was an ashtray on the desk in Dr. Day’s examining room, a shallow brass dish with birds’ heads, ibises or storks or something, their necks arched, the birds facing in opposite directions with beaks open so Dr. Day could wedge his Lucky Strike cigarette laterally across the bird’s beak and let the bird hold it while he held a five-by-seven note card from your file with both hands and thought about you and whatever it was that had you perched up there on the examining table in the cloud of smoke behind him.

    He was a bullet-headed, barrel-bodied little...

  15. Coach
    (pp. 64-68)

    It was a beautiful autumn afternoon—a Saturday in the year John F. Kennedy was killed. The marching band had just finished playing the national anthem, and now Coach was hobbling up the sideline, on those football-damaged knees of his, toward me. He was hot about something, and he grabbed the face mask on my helmet and started figure-eighting my head around—a classic old-time coach’s way of getting a dullard’s attention.

    I remember being inside the helmet—the blue autumn sky and the stands and press box pitching and yawing crazily out there in the distance, and Coach’s face,...

  16. Leroy
    (pp. 69-75)

    I’m guessing Leroy (Luh-ROY, not LEE-roy) graduated from Libertyville High School in 1924, and he had worked in stores up and down Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville ever since—the hardware store, grocery stores, the drugstore off and on for a while. When the IGA closed in the early fifties, he came back to the drugstore and worked full-time there—first for Mr. Taylor, then for Mr. Wilson.

    He wore short-sleeved, bleach-yellowed, mostly synthetic dress shirts, bolo ties, those trousers guys who didn’t wear suits used to wear to work every day, and comfortable shoes, really comfortable shoes. Leroy’s arches had...

  17. Wrestling Eddie Dutzler
    (pp. 76-81)

    I was clicking through channels the other night, and I happened across one devoted to Big Ten sports. They were showing a wrestling match between the University of Iowa and the University of Illinois. A pair of corn-fed, land-grant heavyweights overflowed their singlets and circled and pawed at one another, looking for an opening, while their cauliflower-eared coaches, ill-fitting sport coats off, ties loosened, elbows on knees, yelled instructions from the bench.

    I am not a wrestling fan and never have been. The NCAA could hold the national finals on my neighbor’s front lawn, and I wouldn’t bother to haul...

  18. Awkward Moment
    (pp. 82-88)

    My father wrote for theChicago Daily Newsfor more than thirty years, and he had a newspaperman’s sense of writing style. It was who, what, where, when, and why, machine-gunned in short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Clarity, clarity, clarity was milled through a manual typewriter, marked up, and sent downstairs to the composition department via a system of pneumatic tubes that fascinated me as a child and seemed to go everywhere in the Daily News Building on West Madison Street.

    I still have a copy of a memo to the staff that the hard-bitten, chain-smoking, alcoholic old...

  19. Good-bye to Libertyville
    (pp. 89-92)

    It was a Saturday evening in early September, and my mother, my father, my buddy, and I were in the tan 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne nine-passenger station wagon driving to Glenview where I was to catch the overnight Milwaukee Road train to Minneapolis and college. A cousin of mine had tried college a year earlier, then opted to go into the air force instead. He’d given me his off-to-college trunk, and I’d packed it, taken it to the Railway Express office, and shipped it on ahead. The rest of my stuff was in an army surplus duffel bag riding between my...

  20. Mademoiselle P.
    (pp. 93-95)

    She was a single woman in her sixties, a professor who had done graduate work at the Sorbonne back in her twenties. She had wandered through academia sans tenure since then, and now she was teaching remedial French to the churlish sons of secondand third-generation Irish and German Americans at a Benedictine men’s college seventy-five miles north of Minneapolis. She was conjugatingêtreagain—this time in an austere classroom on the fourth floor of a dark old quadrangle late on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, two and a half feet of snow in the bare oak woods and on the...

  21. Make the World Go Away
    (pp. 96-101)

    Vern, the warehouse foreman at the cardboard box factory, had artistic talent. He was forever drawing naked women in erotic poses on the massive rolls of paper that stood in the warehouse, waiting to be cut into sheets, printed, die-cut, folded, glued, and shipped. We would be gathered, three or four of us, leaning against one of the rolls—the box factory warehouseman’s equivalent of leaning on a shovel. Vern would take a pencil from behind his ear and go to work. He had a gift, a real gift. The women he drew were Al Capp–like: leggy, languorous, recumbent,...

  22. Screwed
    (pp. 102-107)

    It was a warm summer afternoon in 1966. I was standing at the counter in the Selective Service office in Waukegan with six or seven other young men. The local draft board was having its monthly meeting that afternoon, and we were all there to appeal our draft status.

    It was a scene that played out over and over again in the tired old office building on Water Street. It was all a misunderstanding. The draft board had done us wrong. They didn’t know who we were or what we were trying to achieve with our young and promising lives....

  23. Joe
    (pp. 108-112)

    For a while, back in college, I tended bar in the small farm town near campus. There was a town bar, and there was a bar where the college crowd drank. I worked at the town bar, next door to the butcher and across the street from the Catholic church. It was the only church in town.

    Hard-core regulars anchored the bar stools from the time we opened in the morning until suppertime. These were thirdgeneration Stearns County Germans who’d grown up on farms and spoke English with a German accent. Hour after hour, day after day, they took turns...

  24. An Old Roommate Checks In
    (pp. 113-117)

    It’s early morning in February. Sunrise is an hour and a half off. There’s a full moon, and I’m shoveling four inches of new snow off the driveway. The thirteen-year-old, he of the strong, young back, is up there behind that dormer, sleeping the deep, rich sleep of adolescence. Somewhere out there in the dark, an owl is asking its perpetual question.

    Shoveling snow became a form of contemplation for me decades ago. It’s work to do while I wander the labyrinth of my existence, trying to move in God’s general direction. The Benedictines have a saying:ora et labora....

  25. A Preinduction Reverie
    (pp. 118-121)

    Something about sitting in your underwear on a cold metal folding chair in the basement of the main post office in downtown Minneapolis before dawn in January, holding your preinduction physical paperwork, waiting for the clerks and doctors to start work, kind of deflates a guy. You’re cold and virtually naked. The guy next to you is sporting an interesting rash. The guy in front of you should have gotten new underwear for Christmas. There’s nothing to read, and if you pass the physical (why wouldn’t you? you’re twenty and in perfect health) the army will have your ass for...

  26. Dear John
    (pp. 122-126)

    There was a certain smell to army canvas, a heavy, tarpy, waterproofed funk. The S-4 supply section warehouse smelled of it. So did all the tents and cots when the battalion went into the field and jeeps with their tops up and the covered beds of the bigger trucks. Anywhere you went in the army, you could almost taste the canvas.

    I was sitting by myself in the back end of a two-and-a-half-ton truck parked in the back row of the battalion motor pool in Germany, awash in the smell of canvas. I was about to open a letter from...

  27. The Major
    (pp. 127-135)

    The battalion motor pool was a sheet-metal lean-to with an office attached to the north side of the structure. It sat on a sand beach on the bay side of the Cam Ranh peninsula, fenced in with triplestacked concertina barbed wire, a two-man foxhole bunker facing the water, the gate on the north side. Driving in or out, the men in the big trucks had to drop them into six-wheel drive in order to get through the heavy sand dunes.

    Those of us assigned to the motor pool shared the space with a colony of big lizards—three-, four-, and...

  28. The Amnesty Barrel
    (pp. 136-139)

    We were going home. The high-mileage, retrofitted Boeing 707 sat out there on the tarmac, shimmering in the heat, the girl of our dreams, too good to be true—those low-slung swept wings, that classic silhouette. No airplane in history ever looked anywhere near as beautiful. We were standing in the air-conditioned sheet-metal shed that served as a boarding gate, looking out through the Plexiglas windows, ogling her. For our entire tour, she had been as unattainable as the homecoming queen. We had been homely hoodlums, the worthless dregs of the class. Now here she was, suddenly available, smiling coyly,...

  29. 1972
    (pp. 140-145)

    It was a commune of psychologists—young PhD types—in South Minneapolis, and for a while after the war it was home. I’d found it through my job as a benefits counselor on the drug and alcohol ward at the Veterans Administration hospital. One of the psychologists worked there, and the rest—three or four others, the number rose and fell—used a combination of ever-so-slightly post-hippie idealism and gooey graduate school psychology to cohere to the commune.

    We lived in a five-bedroom house across a quiet street from a dingy little Lithuanian Lutheran church. Between work and graduate school...

  30. A Typewriter Reverie
    (pp. 146-152)

    I am writing this in Microsoft Word—the Coupe de Ville of word processing programs. I’m cruising on automatic. If this sentence takes a wide turn or heads up a dead end, I’ll highlight it, hit “delete,” and I’ll be back at the beginning, just to the right of the period from the last sentence, the cursor patiently blinking at me, asking, “Where to?”

    If I misspell a word, the program underlines it in red. It underlines sentence fragments, too. It questions some commas and, occasionally, homonyms. The use of the passive voice is routinely discouraged, as are a whole...

  31. Advertising Memories
    (pp. 153-158)

    “I really like where your head is at,” the first advertising creative director to hire me said as he offered me a job. He was a hoary old advertising copywriter, and he had no qualms about using clichés or hanging prepositions off the end of his sentences as long as it sold. He had the bright red complexion of a practicing alcoholic. We were in his office, in that low point between his three-martini lunch and cocktail hour. I had been suffering for my art as a real writer, and I had holes in both shoes as well as in...

  32. Almost
    (pp. 159-163)

    I don’t do well in groups—never have, never will. Set me down in the middle of a room full of people, and I will immediately begin to edge toward the door. I will edge as inconspicuously as possible, but take my word for it, I will edge. I have no need to offend anyone. There is only that overwhelming need to slip out, jerk my necktie loose, unbutton my collar, and run.

    All those people interacting, talking, mingling, drive me ever deeper into myself, where I become my own voyeur, at once fascinated and horrified by my dilemma and...

  33. Pimping My Muse
    (pp. 164-168)

    From time to time back before I became one of the new has-beens of advertising, I used to go talk to advertising school classes about creativity. There they would be, all those fresh-faced, eager young minds out to master the alchemy of advertising, pens poised, ready to take down every word and thought. There I would be, regretting my role in encouraging them.

    “Go back,” I wanted to stage-whisper to them. “It’s a trick. If you have any talent at all, someday you’ll regret wasting it in advertising.”

    But the young people with the poised pens weren’t there to hear...

  34. Karma Turd A-Coming
    (pp. 169-174)

    For a while there, I was a vice president associate creative director at a highly creative advertising agency—VP, ACD. I’d worked hard, and it seemed like a weighty title at first. I’ll confess to a spate of even larger than normal narcissism. And for a while I had to push hard to get my ego through the door into any room.

    But the people in charge hadn’t given me any equity with the title. They held executive committee meetings without me, after which they walked around looking spookily owlish, tracking puddles of collusion through the halls. Clearly they had...

  35. A Bedside Visit
    (pp. 175-179)

    The last time I saw my father, he was lying in the bed nearest the door of a double-occupancy nursing-home room. Beside him, on one of those tables that wheel across the bed at mealtime, he had a glass of water with a flexible straw. A covered plastic pitcher of ice water gone tepid stood beside the glass. He had his glasses on, although he’d lost most of his ability to read by then. He was staring at the wall beyond the foot of the bed, killing what little time he had left.

    He had aspirated his false teeth during...

  36. Vigil Candles
    (pp. 180-184)

    I had a dream before dawn this morning. One of those camera-subjective things where the dream wandered, boomed, pushed, and panned around and through the vigil lights on Saint Joseph’s side of the altar in an old Catholic church. Some of the candles were newly lit; others were old, weakly flaming, on the verge of flickering out; others were at various stages in between. Still others had yet to be lit at all. Every so often a coin would clank into a brass collection box outside the camera frame and echo in the empty church. Then some hand, holding a...

  37. Back Matter
    (pp. 185-185)