All Stories, General Fiction

The Knowing of Which Way to Turn by Michael Grant Smith

It surprised no one when Bruce Feathers once again launched a torpedo into his own life. Ten years ago, the semi-retired auto mechanic earned a ticket to the slammer for diddling the brake lines on Nathan Polk’s pickup truck. Bruce insisted the disconnection was accidental, but everyone knew that Nathan, a semi-retired insurance agent, had been topping off Bruce’s future ex-wife’s fluids, so to speak.

Nathan’s Ford vaulted a guardrail and went wheels-up into the mud-bottomed pond at the bend of Pond Corner Rd. The big money Nathan paid Bruce to hop up that truck had always sizzled, never more than when the deputies’ measuring tape tallied a fifty-three foot flight prior to splashdown. According to the fire chief’s official report, Nathan experienced a post-impact lull during which he considered his new circumstances. Evidence of tornadic activity inside the truck’s cab suggested he’d spent at least an hour trapped in upside-down darkness before the air went scarce.

Ten years later, only five days paroled out of the big house, Bruce dug up Nathan’s corpse and stabbed a screwdriver into the suspected philanderer’s desiccated heart. Mr. Feathers’ version was that he’d borrowed the tool from Mr. Polk and felt obligated to return it. Charges are still pending.

Left on its own, the past would have continued shrinking in the distance. I always thought so until the aforementioned recent revelations made me refill my nerve pill prescription.

High school bandmates. I’d drilled on the field, at all hours and in all weather, with Bruce and Nathan. Mirrored their steps and cadences; stars clustered in ever-changing constellations. Drummers all three of us, and there’s no substitute or cure for being part of a collective consciousness enslaved to precision.

Don’t misunderstand — success will rise to meet you. Four children and $550 in the bank are proof. No, the kids aren’t in the bank, even though they should be: they’re treasure. My wife’s sidecar motorcycle racing career keeps her chasing wins, and me at battle stations in regard to parental responsibilities, but her imminent breakthrough rides like road dust on your tongue.

Despite all of that joy, something’s always missing from post-band reality. As in the colorless first half of The Wizard of Oz, or biscuits without salt in the dough. When single-filing through the dog track’s turnstiles or maybe shopping at the Food Lion, you find yourself marching a little bit; sort of a left-right-left-right shuffle. Not stepping high as you would on game night. Just staying in time and counting until the pivot.

Before everything turned adulterous and murderous, my comrades and I had a great history together. Now and today, how could it be wrong to revisit the years that defined us? Life’s syncopation wants some order. Where better to find it than to once again reassemble in formation on parquet-patterned grass?

All of the trombone players now live in an old Airstream trailer outside of Plano, Texas, so it might be hard to bring them home. That’s okay; brass sections are as common as cats and damn near sold by the pound today. Unsurprisingly, half our clarinetists glide-stepped into federal prison. No one was surprised when Kevin the triangle guy committed suicide. The drum major was mugged at a family reunion and hasn’t eaten solid food or spoken a word since then. As you know, Nathan’s new address is six feet beneath topsoil. We survivors accept our losses but still hear the music.

Mr. Mace, who served twenty-seven years as band director, is long gone. Our beloved tyrant was about to turn pro but then came the electrocution. It’s not supposed to be possible with those portable bullhorns, and yet Joe Mace was killed deader than dog shit. His widow never saw a cent from it. Mrs. Mace wasn’t too bothered one way or the other, although she seemed relieved the yelling had stopped.

“One more chance” is simply the phrase we use to describe successive opportunities whenever they appear, inexplicably, at their own convenience. Even when your truck cab is planted in silt and decay, you can’t be sure which blink is the last. Better to march than to think too much. The uniform is yours to wear but not to keep. When the clock runs down, a switch is thrown, and nighttime wins the stadium. The insects fly away.

Inside you is a beat that doesn’t end. The only response is to push it out of your hands, through the sticks, and onto those skins.


Michael Grant Smith

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8 thoughts on “The Knowing of Which Way to Turn by Michael Grant Smith”

  1. Hi Michael,
    I really enjoyed this.
    It was dry and the matter-of-fact delivery worked superbly.
    I love the line about ‘…the years that define us.’ It has made me think, disagree, accept and then change my mind about when they were for me. I reckon everyone who reads this will pause at that line and consider.


  2. Michael,
    Very glad I played in A band and not in BAND, very dark times for the classmates after school.Enjoyed it! The show must go on, no matter if the performers are new or retired or dead, enjoyed the ending.


  3. This was very funny and rhythmic… upbeat style. The protagonist has survived to a near-normal state. Indeed, the second law of thermodynamics seems at work here… out of the band, into the confusing world. What is interesting is we remember best the Bruce Feather types, who go all the way into the darkest drama…”better to burn out, than to fade away,” to paraphrase Neil Young. I dig the last line.


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