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Larry Smith

Larry Smith

Everything that Larry Smith knows he has distilled into two volumes of short stories. One is A Shield of Paris. The other is Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick. All the stories here, which have been previously published online or in print, are included in one or the other of those volumes.

In his stories, Larry Smith charts the transformation of irony into elegy, of the will to power into acts of love.

Larry Smith, a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer, lives and works in New Jersey. He is originally from Cleveland. For decades he labored as a business journalist and communications consultant to countries and corporations. His bylines number over a thousand and he's ghostwritten for numerous prominent personages.

His ghosted or co-bylined books include a military memoir and a political autobiography. He wrote one called Paint Good and Fast on behalf of “the world's fastest painter,” Morris Katz. It's funny and actually worth reading if you can find it anywhere.

To read his unpublished fiction, or to discuss what you read here, write to Larry Smith at .

 

Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick

Inspired by the lives and careers of Cardinal Francis Spellman and Cardinal Richard Cushing, Larry Smith's Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick evokes the political turmoil, sexual torment, and moral crises that have beset the Catholic Church and defined our era. It is an unrelenting fiction replete with Popes and Presidents, parish priests and Broadway chorus boys. Rich in its complex prose and dark humor, this narrative offers up the spiritual antipodes of human experience, from the lofty machinations of global potentates to the naked prayers of a sinful desperate saint. Order Here…

Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick excerpted in The Collagist

Read Online

The Fundament Bared…

“I Will Trouble You No Further” appeared in RavensPerch

Nope, ain’t over…

“Existential Futility” appeared in Shark Reef

Darkest Isle…

“Hecuba to Him” appeared in Sequestrum

In Your Rear, Your End Again…

“Woman, My Come Is Time” appeared in Heart and Mind Zine, awarded Judge's Choice as the highest-rated short story for Issue #1.

Hijab…

“The Magic Moslem” appeared in Phenomenal Literature (India), Vol. 1, No.2

William Burroughs in Cleveland, almost…
“Kid's Friend” appeared in Exquisite Corpse

New Jersey, hot!…
“New Jersey and Me” appeared in Exquisite Corpse

Nonpareil anthropologies…
“Renamed” appeared in Juked
“The Dowries” appeared in Juked

Beloved mirage…

“Through Alice Glass Darkly” appeared in Sliptongue
It was anthologized in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica,
Volume 9, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, available here.

Harsh desire…
“His Respect” appeared in Sliptongue

Immaculate Conception…
“He Who” appeared in FictionNow

Jesus yes or Jesus no?…
“This Rover Crossed Over” appeared in Curbside Splendor

Original sin…
“The Montez Get” appeared in Ray's Road Review

Precious monster…
“Gargantua” appeared in Union Station Magazine

Order Online

Metempsychotically speaking…
“Cleveland, As It Were” appeared in Offbeat/Quirky, JEF Books, edited by Eckhard Gerdes

With Dutch Schultz at world's end…
“Tight Like That” appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Issue 27

Form is born…

“Punch Line” appeared in The Bicycle Review, Issue 30
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Jungle fever…
“Romero and Sylvette” appeared in Pank, January 2009

Jihad…

“Their Music” appeared in Prick of the Spindle
Request manuscript file:

Primal narrative…

“The Shield of Paris” (near title story of volume) appeared in Low Rent and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize
Request manuscript file:

Devil's delight…

“Global Positioning System” appeared in Danse Macabre, Issue 29
Request manuscript file:

Unspeakable deletions…

“Edits Incorporated” (originally titled “The End of Time”) appeared in spork, 2005
Request manuscript file:

Dark communion…

“Rockers” appeared in Knock, Issue 10, 2008
Request manuscript file:

She's in love with Sirhan Sirhan…

“The Testament of Betty Sue Williams” appeared in Hambone, Fall 1984
Request manuscript file:

Betty Sue Williams redux…

“The Desert by the Sea” appeared in Lucrezia Magazine, July 2009
Request manuscript file:

Story of the Month

Punch Line

This is the story of a very great miracle that happened one evening during the first half of the century before the last. The weather that night was horrible. There was a torrential blast, full of lightning and thunder, which was extraordinarily unusual for this neighborhood that’s actually famous for tranquility. Great and tormented souls have come from this land, but, if they were tormented, it wasn’t because their bodies were buffeted by climatic adversity. I’ve seen knolls of grass here that looked posed and frozen in the sunlight. Such is the usual weather, that only the light dances. Each blade of grass is, as it were, statuesque. The clouds that do roll by are soon brushed away by the sirocco.

Yet unremitting rain was already pounding against Dr. Mathez’ cottage at a severe angle, so that the heavy tape his wife had used to seal the sills admitted thin continuous streams. Towels lay on the floor to absorb the moisture. Mathez smiled and nodded as if to say, “there’s nothing more you can do.” She settled into his arms for their nightly silence, which was better than sexual love had ever been.

Their three children had gone out into the world decades ago. Two were living in the town, one a merchant and the other a merchant’s wife. No one understood it, but the third was a seared sort of fellow, painfully shy and hard pressed to make his way. Fortunately, the local clergy were glad to help. They made a place in the church for the young man and, a few years ago, sent him off to a foreign place.

“Do you hear something?” he asked. “Something not thunder?”

A bolt of lightning flashed, forming, it seemed, a whole circle streaking around the house, and the thunder that ensued was so loud his wife didn’t even try to make herself heard in reply. When the noise subsided, she nestled against his chest and corralled and caressed each of his fingers, one by one, as had been her pleasant habit for over forty years.

Another sound, though, was certainly not thunder. It was a rhythmic thud repeated half a dozen times. “My word, a knock? Now?” she asked. His body tensed and she undid the embrace. The old man left the room and went into the small passage that led to their front room. She waited, bemused. Returning, his footsteps were just audible, like a rustle of silk under the din from outside.

“I’m needed,” he said, gray-faced. His white beard, cropped around the jowls, varied somewhat his sallow complexion. He’d had a bout with hepatitis some years earlier; it took all the color out of his face. At that moment he seemed grayer yet, a little afraid of the weather outside and not at all confident about the chore ahead. His wife scurried to an antechamber and brought his bag: powders, the forceps, a knife, other instruments. She opened it quickly to check that his mask was also inside.

Their eyes met a bit fearfully as he took the bag. “She began six hours ago,” he said. “I hope to be back in another six or seven.”

He made his way to the carriage waiting outside. The reek of horseflesh was like fresh dung and merged sharply with the smell of the grass, which was likewise stunning and sharp in the wet air. It was unpleasant; Mathez, not expecting the stench, could have fainted. Just the thirty yards from his door to the road was enough to drench him to the bone. The umbrella, which was torn anyway, would not have been of much use against the rain that was blowing at angles of almost 45 degrees.

Horribly, there was no roof on the carriage. It was completely exposed. “What is this!” he shouted at the stable hand who had come to fetch him.

“Their other wagon broke an axle,” said the boy. “Just this morning. I couldn’t fix it.”

Mathez shivered as he accepted a thick cloth hood from the boy. He tried not to anticipate the trip ahead—it was many kilometers from his cottage to the town—and focused instead on the horse, whom he knew: a dark-skinned jumper often shown off around the town by his owner. This beast, although a local entertainer for some time now, neither sought nor got much affection. He often seemed ornery for no reason and Mathez was sure he’d be hard to handle in the storm.

The stable hand was a thin bright-looking kid from a well-liked family in the town. He was known to be an adept rider, no doubt why he’d been asked to fetch the doctor in this dangerous weather. With a sharp lash of the crop he struck at the horse’s butt and then repeated the stroke when the horse tried to pull back as if to rear away from the storm. They worked up a canter, but, as the ground heading toward the copse sloped downward (an easy enough curve in normal weather), the horse picked up speed, too much speed, skidding his hooves against the slick stones on the narrow road. The kid pulled back, too late, though, to slow the pace. The horse panicked and leapt, lifting the wagon almost a foot off the ground.

The wheels landed without damage. Mathez was helping. He grabbed on to part of the rein and pulled with all his strength. It seemed a great long time but then the pace slackened. You could hear a thousand sharp raindrops bounce off the animal’s head almost like hailstones.

Once past the copse he’d be more than halfway to the town. The trees at their tops looked glued together in the air. Often at night you could make out their shapes in the moonlight. The copse was actually a favorite haunt of his. Sometimes, if a mild breeze worked up, the high branches would sway as if in a slow waltz. But now they all hung together like a herd guarding some secret in their midst.

In the further distance, other trees were alone, bending and shaking to the storm. It was a land of pines and cypresses. There were grapes and almonds and olives growing there too. Further off still rose the great mountain, and some smaller ones as well, with seedlings visible even in this terrible night. Many, though, would not survive the sidewise deluge.

The water soaked through his underwear and Mathez was freezing. Worse, the underside of the cloth supposed to protect his head was also drenched, and the rain invaded every angle. When all was said and done, he grimly realized, he’d probably come down with fever. He was both flattered and resentful. Flattered because, although there were good doctors in the town, and no end of good midwives who’d arrive faster (not to mention more safely), he’d attended this family since their arrival in the province and they wanted no one else. But resentful, because their trust was exhausting and could even kill him.

Up ahead was the town. Tonight he could barely see the stone houses, their soft rock wrung up from the ancient quarry nearby, yet the sound of hooves against cobblestone was clear even in the storm. One of the town’s many fountains cast a vague shadow to his right where the church on the other side of the square was also visible. Ahead was their squat, two-story home. Like many of its neighbors close by, its shutters were newly painted, and the facade included a single caryatid abutting elaborate but not ostentatious ironwork. The top floor had been in disrepair for the last few months, though the roof was also freshly painted, a somber green.

The boy tried to shield him from the rain as they raced up the garden path. Mathez smiled appreciatively and patted his shoulder as the gray door opened. “I’ll need a large dry towel at once,” he said to the maid as she admitted the two men. “And some privacy. Take my bag to the lady’s bedroom. And have her pass as much water as she can.”

He was escorted to a small closet-like space off the kitchen and handed a dry cloth about six feet long, of very thick rough cotton. First he dried his feet. There probably wasn’t enough time to strip and dry off completely, so he removed his waistcoat and hoisted up his shirt to wipe his chest and back. Like rope burns, the towel chafed his skin, which had gotten very soft in the last ten years. He winced. He didn’t bother with his pants, although he could still feel the rainwater soaking through.

The master of the house was standing in the middle of the kitchen as Mathez walked out of the closet space. They nodded at each other. “She’s in pain,” said the man. “But I think there’s still time. The stove is hot,” he added, pointing toward the other side of the room where a short hallway was lined with cabinets, a small stove and sink. “Five minutes in front of it should help you.”

Mathez nodded again. The fire warmed his hands and feet but he couldn’t escape the cold wet against his loins and belly. “Take me to her,” he said to the maid after only a moment or two by the stove. She walked him through the corridor, past a small rustic sitting room, and into the woman’s bedroom. Though he had been in the room on a number of prior occasions, this time it seemed smaller than before; the squall outside was shrinking the whole house.

The woman was a mass of sweat lying on the four-poster bed, a small presence on a mattress that could apparently sleep three. She was panting at regular intervals, and around seven inches dilated. Her eyes blinked open and shut, and she almost smiled, comforted by Mathez’ familiar, reassuring presence. Not a very big belly, considering such discomfort. As he caressed her brow and smiled, soothing her, he noted in his peripheral vision that her husband was standing just outside the door: stiff, motionless, not perceptibly very anxious but tense and dutiful. A light in the corner of the sitting room cast the man’s shadow across the floor at the entrance to the bedroom. Mathez thought “husband,” although he knew they hadn’t yet married. Presumably, he would acknowledge and care for the child; otherwise, Mathez thought, he’d take it upon himself to consult the church for help.

So far, all was well. Mathez felt her back in order to be sure that the baby wasn’t sitting on the spine. Then, his ear to her belly, he listened to the healthy thump and nodded with a slight smile. The woman saw the smile, as he meant her to; she let out a happy grunt between the agonized yelps. Reaching out for the powders, he called for the maid to bring water. He mixed the sedative in a glass and his patient drank it down. He caressed her again, giving the potion a chance to take effect.

Outside the storm rose higher and stronger. Sometimes miracles happen on the clearest nights of the year so that the stars can guide the visiting kings. But not this miracle, even though it was to be no less a miracle of the light than the birth of Jesus.

The husband stepped into the room. For an odd second, he and Mathez faced each other as if in confrontation. There certainly was something angry in the man’s round face; the cheekbones were folded in sharply toward the nose, and thick eyebrows lowered over his features. Neither man blinked. He glared at Mathez as if not trusting him with the responsibility—even though Mathez was the one he chose—before returning to the entrance and waiting there, almost sullenly.

Turning back to the woman, Mathez guessed suddenly what the man’s problem may have been. Her nightgown was hiked up to her waist and her legs were spread. The full pubic beard and swollen lips were a sight this husband wanted to claim as a sole prerogative. In an ideal world, all doctors are blind and nothing ever intrudes on the conjugal stake. Maybe, thought Mathez, he had been brought here because a younger doctor could not be tolerated.

Her braids hung in tatters down her cheek. Mathez saw the hips already spreading. She’d be a fat old woman. Maybe fat before then. Her cries now echoed around the room. An expensive gilt crucifix hung on the wall. Its Christ’s eyes were shut. No blood on the walnut skin. She reached down to her hip; the bone was bearing the brunt of the pain. Maybe it was the rain outside and some intimacy engendered by it, but Mathez himself began to sweat in sympathy. Maybe the fever he’d been expecting was already coming on; as he began to massage the woman’s abdomen, his own hips felt swollen and a leaden weight hung between his legs.

She heaved terribly. An hour passed. Her cries were short yet sharp and came every five seconds until they were like a continuous exhalation. He felt older, and weak under the burden of her pain. Nothing was coming yet. In fact, the dilations had stopped altogether. He became worried. He thought about the knife but it had been years since he had cut, and he didn’t want to do it now. Eventually, though, he’d have to do something. Another hour passed.

In all the years, only a half dozen children had died in his hands. Yet the key to his legend was, not a single woman had ever died. When the first one does, he thought, will that be the end? If this one dies, do I die? His nose and chest were congested; he saw, with each gasp of the patient, a specter of his own death. Finally, stronger contractions, and, then rather quickly, full dilation. No fetus in sight, however; he nodded to the maid, who presented him the forceps. He’d pull something out or faint from the chill and his own mucous. Faint, God forbid, and she’d die, and he’d die.

The head rested in the tongs. Mathez now saw a peak of bare cranial flesh between her legs. The maid fetched a small table from the sitting room and spread out the warm linen, then set down the knife he’d use to cut the cord. “Push,” said Mathez. The maid, with remarkable aplomb, went behind the bed and reached out to hold high the woman’s legs.

But the mother started babbling. “Dozens of them,” she kept saying. “Dozens of them.”

“Easy, my dear,” said Mathez.

“All on the road. Dozens everywhere. Don’t stop them, let them wash through, let ’em flow. Tumble each on each.”

“Easy, dearest,” he said again, worrying again for her life. Then he remembered what he’d done with the Palissy woman a decade ago. He leaned over as if to whisper in her ear, but instead began himself to breathe with full, heavy and regular breaths. He furrowed all his concentration in his own breath; he covered the woman with those breaths. Even in her delirium, he’d get her to echo them and, with such breaths, she’d regain control of the moment, and ride over the unbearable pain and the unbearable incoherent visions.

Legs way up. The head was out, and Mathez let the forceps fall from his hand. Just outside, the husband’s shadow loomed large and crossed a foot or two into the bedroom. Mathez watched the top shoulder approach birth: an extrusion as slow as geology. Again, he worried: Had there been enough oxygen?

“It’s a boy,” he said, finally.

“A boy! A boy!” said the mother.

The husband stepped closer to the bed. “Is he whole?”

“He’s whole, so far.”

“End it soon,” he said, sounding more put upon than weary. “Finish soon, can you?”

As if to oblige, the child’s feet sidled out of the mother’s womb. The woman’s thighs were glistening with sweat, and she was almost blinded by the water dripping from her scraggly braids. But the ordeal wasn’t over. There was no sound, not even a splutter of air, after the first slap. Mathez landed another, harder. The moisture on his brow turned cold and he felt it cling to his skin; he felt it chill and clammy inside his head. A third slap, and he heard what sounded like a faint cough, although it didn’t seem to come from the baby. It sounded distant, like something lost out there in the storm. Mathez dared not look at either parent. He blasted, at last, the newborn back with the side of his fist, and a rasp of a cough broke loose.

The infant began to cry but it was a cry Mathez in all these years had never heard before. Not a shrill cry, nor rising ululation, it was a low moaning call that harmonized oddly with the sounds of the rain beating against the windows. Only gradually did it begin to rise, until becoming at last the healthy sound of real life.

Mathez himself could barely see through his own sweat as he counted the toes. “Completely whole,” he said, and let the baby rest against his mother’s belly instead of lying him down on the linen. Mathez cut the cord. The maid hurried over with towels to collect the afterbirth and sop up the blood. As she leaned over, Mathez came close to her fleshy face and smiled. “You’re a fine woman,” he said, loud enough for her employer to hear. “This has been a very hard one. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” she said with a self-effacing smile, still holding the cloth full of afterbirth.

“You can get rid of that now,” Mathez advised her.

He checked the mother. No fever, no sign of infection. But her mouth was ajar, and she seemed insensate. “I was expecting it to be difficult,” he said. “Bear the pain. It will pass.”

The maid came up with the swaddling cloth, and Mathez, stepping back, felt faint again, this time with exhaustion. He was too old for this, too old for such struggle. The father, impassive but no longer quite so stiff, approached him with the coins. “As in the past, we thank you for your considerable efforts,” he said.

“Send a message tomorrow with the stable boy,” he told the man, “even if it’s only to say she’s resting peacefully.” And to the maid he said, “Check her for any excessive redness in the morning. If she’s too warm, tell the master. Any discomfort she mentions, have me informed.”

Mathez walked to the threshold and looked back at the woman. At last she was smiling, happily, as the baby rested on her breast. Outside, the vast pouring rain. As he surveyed the sky, he opened his mouth almost in awe, like he was about to call out to the world. He might have, had he had something to say to the rain. The boy brought the carriage over and Mathez hopped on, using another thick cloth over his head for whatever protection it would provide.

The moon jumped out of the clouds in a sudden blur of bright white and illuminated the whole landscape ahead of him. Everything shone in unprecedented clarity. Never had he seen forms at midnight so well defined. Pieces of bark on the trees hung over each other in a sharply outlined quilt work. The world never looked like this. The distant hills ambled in the moonlight like clay gargantuas about to reshape themselves. Nature was playing with itself, and he felt like an intruder—as if he had caught the world unawares and was about to see its secrets.

He glanced at the stable hand manning the reins. The boy seemed to be seeing something too, but both were quiet.

Actually, the young man was in some pain. The rain was whipping his cheeks and neck, and he was wincing at every turn. The horse barreling resolutely over the land was behaving as if he were angry. Mathez imagined the horse’s eyes: red and glaring, mad at the world for heaving up a child on a night like this. Or perhaps the apparent mystery in the air was unsettling the beast, who was bolting now and almost skidding down the road. But Mathez was less anxious than before, or perhaps he was just resigned to fate.

On the other hand, he wanted to see his wife again. Again, he reached over to help the boy rein in the wild steed. Suddenly they veered over the rim of a ditch, and Mathez heard a perilous sound of horse hooves scratching. He glanced downward as they passed and saw the mud flooded like a deep bog, crisscrossed on the surface by fallen branches. The whole carriage tilted as if to crash, and the two riders braced themselves for the worst. But two of the wheels hewed to fairly solid ground, and the trip continued.

“I guess I don’t want to die yet,” he muttered to the boy, who didn’t respond. Mathez thought of the man who was the child’s father without quite resenting him, even though he lacked the common decency to offer a bed for the night or shelter until the storm subsided. Mathez would have accepted such an offer, of course, and perhaps should even have solicited so basic a consideration. Yet there was about this travail, this deluge of nonpareil clarity, something of a force of inevitability for him.

“And I want to see my wife again,” he added. This time the boy nodded in reply, almost sympathetically.

Harder and harder they pulled on the reins as their steed charged on. Mathez’ arm was throbbing and there was a slight gaseous pain in his chest. A heart attack wouldn’t surprise. He knew his body was being racked. He knew such vessels as his own weren’t fit for this.

The mud saved them. The whole backside of the horse was lurching forward with great resoluteness but the momentum slowed as the wet mud rose ever higher along the road. Soon the beast was a veritable contortionist picking its way forward with exaggerated movements and grinding to less than a trot as his dark legs dug into the quag.

The deceleration made for another problem, however: lightning. Streaks of it were everywhere; the air itself was a lodestone. The young driver was apparently troubled as well. Where just a moment ago he’d been straining to rein in the animal, now he was whipping it almost furiously. One bolt flashed just above their heads, in an instant illuminating countless raindrops for miles in the distance. Not only his own death, Mathez regarded the poor boy beside him who’d never had a chance to live.

“I give up,” he whispered aloud to himself. “I’m as good as dead.”

Yet as if nature were contriving to be merciful, the mud before them hardened and their pace picked up. Mathez glanced at the driver, who also looked relieved. They’d apparently gotten past a small network of streams that had swollen and badly swamped the road. Of course, the lightning could still kill them, or the horse once again accelerate dangerously, but at least now they didn’t feel as if they were just sitting still, waiting for their luck to run out and a thunderbolt hit.

Mathez breathed even deeper when he realized that the copse was well behind them, so their destination could not be too far ahead. “You sleep in the kitchen tonight,” he said to the driver, who nodded back with an appreciative smile. “You can put your horse in my neighbor’s barn.”

“I hope my mother doesn’t worry too much,” said the boy. “I think we’ll be all right as long as no tree falls down on us.”

That was actually a serious consideration. A few older trees hovering over the road were creaking in the wind and rain. But finally Mathez spotted it: the limey green-white facade of his cottage, no more than five hundred yards away. The other-worldly clarity that so affected him at the outset of the return trip had faded although, as they neared the house, and the garden by the front door, Mathez did see the bent heads of the white and red roses in their beds also hung in sharp, eerie outline. The gaslight inside fanned out through the front room. One hundred yards away now, he thought he could make out his wife busying herself about the room.

She embraced her husband as the boy ran off to lodge the horse. Now the cold really afflicted him. Trembled, he peeled off his shirt and pants as his wife brought hot compresses. “I’ll make more for the boy when he comes in,” she said.

He wrapped himself in a long white sheet and hunched up by the fireplace. He lost consciousness before the fumes, which had overpowered him but loosened the oppressive congestion in his head. He opened his eyes to find his wife standing beside him, and he rose to accept her sympathetic caress. Some time had passed, apparently. The stable hand was already settled inside with a mug of tea.

“Tell me you’ll be all right,” she said as she poured him a cup.

“I will,” he said. The back of his head was heavy with indescribable exhaustion but his throat was just a little sore.

Finally, they lay down together. “I’ve never seen you look so tired before,” she said.

“I’ve never felt so tired before.”

“It must have been a hard trip.”

“It was,” he answered. “The delivery was hard too. It was all very hard.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it was Cezanne. Tonight, I delivered Paul Cezanne.”

Poetry

A Major Breakthrough in Literary Scholarship…

“La Fontaine’s Lost Fable Brought to Life At Last” appeared in Offcourse

The Sick Rose…

“A Mastectomy Cycle” appeared in Elimae