Two days before the end, it’s warm and the sky is deep blue and the clouds roll slowly by. My coworker climbs up on a flatbed truck and lies down and looks up at that blue sky and those clouds rolling by. “Hey Bud, you know what my resolution is going to be?”

“What’s it gonna be?”

“I’m resolving to look up at the clouds more often. When was the last time you did that?”

“That’s all I really do,” I say.

“Well, I guess you’re blessed.”

Well, I guess I am. And I hear someone singing, “Blue skies smilin’ at me. Nothin’ but blue skies do I see. Bluebirds singin’ a song. Nothin’ but blue skies from now on.”

I woke up hungover and put on Stardust. Willie Nelson singing about blue skies. Rae opened her eyes, said it was such a nice song. Could I play it again? I reached over and pushed the button and Willie Nelson sang sweetly about blue skies, again.

I spent the morning dreaming a time lapse video recorded over a lifetime. Young hands digging in the dirt, planting seeds. Rain falling. Lemon sun shining. And then green sprouts poking up out of the dirt. Flowers popping open. Wind shaking the stalks. Frost forming. Petals falling. Snow falling. Snow melting. The dirt again. The same hands, now older, feebler, digging in the older dirt, planting seeds. Green sprouts again. Wind and rain and lemon sun. Flowers popping up. Frost. Petals falling. Ice piling up. It all melting away. Old hands now digging in the dirt. Old hands planting seeds. Green stalks coming up out of the old dirt. Purple flowers opening on a perfect day.

And while Hamlet’s father slept in the garden, poison was poured in his ear. He woke up in his castle, but it wasn’t his castle anymore. He stayed there anyway.

It’s raining in real life. People gathered together in an endless crowd, translucent ponchos, sunglasses from the future, getting soaked, celebrating something new. It’s raining on TV too. It’s raining on the internet. It’s raining everywhere.

A search shows some people are trying to lose weight.

Others will quit smoking.

Others will travel.

Others want to eat at least five pieces of fruit a day.

The Uber driver says, “But you’re not going to New York?” She’s really worried. Rae says, “No, not at all. Just down the street.” Out the window, the rain comes down harder and the streets are empty and black. In Times Square they are confiscating umbrellas. The driver says, “I’ve got bottles of water in the side door. Take one if you want. But maybe there’s enough water falling already. Maybe you want something stronger? You like Jack Daniels?” I say, “Yeah, sure.” The driver pulls over and from her bag she pulls a sleeve of plastic shot glasses and a bottle of Jack Daniels. She pours two shots. One for me and one for Rae. We drink them down. The driver says, “Happy New Year, don’t tell Uber I just did that.” And we drive on to Light Horse Harry’s.

Two years ago, if there are years, I read a thick book. Now when I pick it up off the shelf, I can’t remember what happens in the book. I might not have even bothered. It took so long to read. Night after night. Sometimes I read it on my lunch breaks too. I flip it over and look at the back. The synopsis sounds familiar. But I’m not sure. I wish I had a photographic memory.

But wait, in the desk drawer I find a journal I kept that year. One entry reads, “This book sucks.”


A man in town makes art out of chain link fences. He knots together plastic shopping bags and weaves them through the chain link so it spells out, “This Too Shall Pass”.

It takes 1000 years for a plastic bag to completely decompose.

This too shall pass, in 1000 years.

Everything will decay, Mom says.

Everything unimportant will decay, Dad says.

The significant and the insignificant decay to the same place, Mom and Dad say together.

The kids cry.

 

“To live means to suffer,” the drunk pharmacist says dishing out sky blue pills, pink pills, yellow pills, pills the color of everlasting spring.

Others want to travel. Others want to hold a spider. Others want to find love. Others want to get in The Guinness Book of World Records. Others want this to be the year they finally avenge their own murder.

Tibetan monks came to the community college, and spent all week making a mandala. A design of four gates, representing the four noble truths, with a center circle, symbolizing cosmic and psychic order, probably, I don’t know. They bent over and dropped specks of colored sand onto the wood. The students watched. Someone began recording it all. A camcorder set up on a tripod. And on this tripod recording you can see the students snapping pictures of the monks making their mandala. And you can see the students taking selfies with the monks in the background making their mandala. All week this goes on, the monks bent over, the students trying to tag the Tibetan monks on Instagram. Then, when all that intricate work is done, the students watch as the monks carefully pick up the board and carry the mandala down to the lake, where they dump the colored sand into the green green water.

Others are going to make a big badass baby. Others want to save more money. My back hurts. It’s going to hurt worse tomorrow. It’ll hurt worse the day after that. Others are going to quit taking their miracle drugs. I stand from my chair and try to reach up and touch the sky. Others are going to learn astral projection.

The afterlife is tired. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, the dead man sings over the radio. And reincarnation, the most exhausting of all. If you don’t like other people, it won’t be a party to come back as one of those idiots.

Across the desert, Jesus shakes Lazarus and Lazarus opens his eyes in confusion. Thank you, I guess. Alarm bells ringing, some Law has been broken. Jesus can’t outrun those cops, but Lazarus does. He lives another thirty years, making it to the ripe old age of sixty, never smiling again.

They say he was sullen because while he was dead, his soul was in Hades and he saw such terrors there.

“The origin of suffering is attachment,” the distorted voice of the woman at the McDonald’s drive thru tells me through the trembling intercom.

A phoenix has its own problems. It keeps lighting itself on fire, burning itself to ash. Only to rise from its own ashes forced to become itself again.

Irving Berlin wrote the song “Blue Skies” in 1926 as a last minute addition to a musical called Betsy, which was a failure. But “Blue Skies” was an instant success. On opening night, the audience demanded endless encores of it.

The show ending and the audience screaming, “Blue Skies! Blue Skies!”

Belle Baker came out through the curtain and sang it again. And again. And again.

10 encores of Blue Skies. And then 16 encores of Blue Skies. And the audience wanting to hear it again. 19, 20, 21 encores of Blue Skies. These things form an afterlife. During the final repetition, Belle Baker forgot the lyrics.

Irving Berlin sang the words from his seat in the front row. 24 encores of Blue Skies.

If you killed yourself it wouldn’t even help. You’d just get called back again to sing the song they demand of you, they demand of you, they demand of you, they demand of you.

Willie Nelson died on the operating table. But before the surgeon called the coroner in, the surgeon put on a record, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and as Ray Charles sang, “You Win Again,” Willie opened his blue eyes and drew a new breath.  

Then the door opens and it’s six years ago. People drink champagne and kiss and through the door comes a random man off the street wielding bagpipes. He marches past our table and the door slams. He’s playing the bagpipes as loud as he can and the startled people turn, and cover their ears, and the bartenders are yelling, threatening physical violence, but he keeps marching farther into the packed crowd, blowing harder and harder on the pipes. When he gets to the end of the bar, he joins the people in line for the bathroom and stands with them quietly, in plaid kilt, furry hat, bagpipe cradled in arms like a sleeping baby lamb. Red-faced. Wobbling. The bathroom door opens. The piper goes inside. The toilet flushes. The pipes shriek behind the door. The door opens. The music is deafening again. He marches past us all. Out onto the street. We are having such a time together.

New Years Day, everybody’s birthday, they’d have you believe. But really, it’s Rae’s grandfather’s birthday. Maternal side. He’s been dead over thirty years. Today is his birthday. Happy birthday to him. And happy birthday to everybody else too, except Rae’s grandfather on her father’s side, who tried to strangle Rae’s mother. That is Rae’s first memory. Rae is four years old. That man leans in through the car window, his hands wrapped around her mother’s throat.

Google can’t quite explain the Holy Ghost to me.

Ask Jeeves can’t quite explain the Holy Ghost to me.

The lead singer in the yellow cardigan wipes the sweat from his brow and tells us, “It’s hot up here. God. To put an end to suffering, we need to control our desires or practice non-attachment. This may sound difficult but can be achieved through diligent practice. It’s so hot up here.” His stratocaster is baby blue. He’s trying to make us believe he is Rivers Cuomo.

Nothing has more staying power than a ghost. A ghost lives on and on.

Houses are haunted. Every house is haunted.

But apartments aren’t haunted.

What kind of ghost would haunt a shit hole like this?

What kind of ghost would live here in this dump?

Others want to leave Hell.

Others want to get to Heaven.

Others want a pet.

Others want a new language.

Others are aiming for a personal best.

Others want to nullify their life.

Nobody bitten by a vampire ever got happier.

In Phoenixville, volunteers gather on autumnal weekends to build a wooden phoenix, over thirty feet tall. The build starts in September, finishes in December.

You can go to this field and help the construction. Any skill level, any experience. When the build is complete, the bird is set on fire before a crowd, cheering and watching the flames burst higher and higher into the night sky. The hope—everything and everyone will rise from the ashes, reborn, as itself. Oh fuck, this again.  

Standing in MOMA, looking at Joan Mitchell. Two canvases that fill a wall. Yellow and gray and orange and purple. Underneath hides mint. It looks like spring. It looks like life bursting up after the retreat of the bleakest winter. Joan has been dead since 1992. Yet, here she is. Standing right here. She’s standing right here and will be for as long as anyone has eyes. Wood, Wind, No Tuba.

The hostess with the tattooed legs says to me, “The way to the Eightfold Path is Zen.” And that’s a shame. Zen is the biggest pain in the ass of all pains in the ass.

The door opened. Megan from Vermont walked in. She’d brought two friends with her—also from Vermont—to this party. PJ the DJ, who has his entire PA system down in the car. And Dan, who has come here to breakdance. I don’t know. The apartment was about six hundred square feet.

It was eight o’clock. Everybody was drunk already and it seemed kind of wild to set up the PA system, but it got set up anyway. I even went down to the car, a tiny Honda, and Chuck and I helped lug some of the equipment up into Erin’s building. Crates of records. Turntables. Smoke machine. Lighting rig.

By the time it was all set up, the living room was full with it and everyone who was in the living room crowded into the kitchen. PJ the DJ started spinning. The breakdancer started twirling on his head. Megan said, “We should go and watch the ball drop.” Nobody said anything. I’d lived in New York for almost a decade. I’d lived near New York my whole life. I’d never been to Times Square to see the ball drop.

At nine o’clock, Megan said, “Let’s go see the ball drop.” The breakdancer twirled even faster on his head. PJ the DJ pumped up the volume.

At ten o’clock, the music stopped. Megan had convinced PJ to go with her from Brooklyn to 42nd street, where people were crammed in like cattle, unable to drink, or use the bathroom. Some of them packed in there since 3pm.

But Megan was off.

Off she went. We yelled good luck.

“Do you think she’ll make it?”

“No. It’s impossible.”

We poured more drinks and time spilled on. I don’t know where time went. The TV popped on. The breakdancer walked around the teacup apartment on his hands. Ryan Seacrest was talking about impermanence. Ryan Seacrest said infinity was here. Ryan Seacrest tried to explain the Holy Ghost but got lost in the middle, settled on all we are is dust in the wind, baby.

Midnight was right on the other side of every door. The ball fell and everyone sang/mumbled what they knew of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Two seconds into the New Year, our phones buzzed. Megan stood in Times Square, PJ at her side, in the photo, the descending ball just over her shoulder. She’d made it. Of course she’d made it. Zen stuff. Coming up out of one Zen subway station, Zen slipping under a Zen barricade, going down another Zen subway entrance, coming up on the other Zen side of the street, Zen begging a Zen cop to let them in, and then, Zen getting there.

A few months later, I learned the breakdancer overdosed. Turned blue. Someone said they thought he was in The Guinness Book of World Records. I looked it up. Yeah, he was in The Guinness Book of World Records. He’s still in The Guinness Book of World Records.

Janis Joplin starts singing, “Hello John, this is Janis who’d just like wish you a happy very birthday…and…happy trails to you until we meet again. Happy trails to you, keep smiling until then. Happy trails to you until we meet again!”

And now the wind blows against the window and makes the wooden blinds dance. We’re just temporarily here, unable to command our bodies. We’ll try again sometime after 1pm. Rae says, “Can you put on Stardust? I want to hear ‘Blue Skies’.”

That thing where you didn’t think it could rain any harder. Yet it does. Nine more blocks to walk. Dodging rivers coming down alleys. Lakes bubbling up out of storm drains. “It’s empty out here. How many people do you think said forget it and stayed home?”

“Twenty percent,” I say.

She laughs, “Counting me and you, I count two percent.”

And the fireworks are happening somewhere but our sky remains in darkness. The growl of it all. Socks soggy. When we arrive, the DJ is playing Rihanna. 

Rihanna sings: Said I’ll always be your friend. Took an oath, I’ma stick it out to the end. Now that it’s raining more than ever, know that we’ll still have each other. You can stand under my umbrella. You can stand under my umbrella ella ella, eh eh eh; ella ella, eh eh eh; ella ella, eh eh eh; ella ella, eh eh eh; ella ella, eh eh eh.

We find a table, the hostess’ legs are tattooed and look good, she’s dancing on the podium by the door. She gave me the wrong change. She stops dancing, more wet people coming in the door, getting under the umbrella ella ella, eh eh eh; ella ella, eh eh eh; ella ella, eh eh eh; ella ella, eh eh eh; ella ella, eh eh eh.

The cover band leaps up and plays “Mr. Brightside” and then the Kinks. Through it all, they keep saying “Stay tuned for Weezer.” They keep saying, “Weezer is coming next.”

After their set, and the change of the calendar year, each member of the cover band puts on a yellow cardigan sweater and comes back on stage and tells everyone they are Weezer, as their uncle films it on a tripod. 

I barely want to be myself. I don’t want to have to go through the trouble of being someone else, endlessly.

Werner Herzog and his film crew go into a cave in France. On the walls of the cave are paintings of horses, and bison. The paintings are 40,000 years old. Whoever made the paintings has been dead for 39,970 years. Yet here we are, looking at their art. Not that we know their name. Not that we know their hopes and dreams. Not that it matters. One school of thought says, it doesn’t matter where the art comes from, it just matters that it was made.

They say we make art to achieve immortality. Did someone 40,000 years ago suspect they’d die?

Am I supposed to?

Charlie Watts sat down at the piano and played the foundational melody of “Jumping Jack Flash.” Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, said, “Oh what’s that?” Charlie showed them how to play the melody. A few days later, Richards and Jagger came back with a song they’d written. It was the song that Charlie Watts had shown them. But they said, “Here’s a song we’ve written.” And Charlie Watts said, “I wrote that.” And they said, “We said, here’s a song that we’ve written.”

An email comes in. Mom and Dad are getting older. They just want to remind us before the start of the new year that they will be dying before too long, who knows how long, but before too long.

Wait, hold on, my friend Joe who lives in Denver, has a ghost in his apartment.

“Her name is Marion Williams. Died here in 1968.”

“I had this theory that ghosts don’t haunt apartments. What’s your apartment like? Is it homey?”

“It’s small. Cozy. Pretty quiet. Hardwood floors, plaster walls, a kitchen full of appliances from the 1950s.”

Another friend of mine claims to be haunted by a poltergeist. The poltergeist was there when he moved into the house in the 90s. It would play tricks on him. Rearranging items on the kitchen counter so they were in order from smallest to tallest. Hiding his car keys. Running up and down the stairs. Playing the piano once. The house was razed to the ground in the spring of 2013 after substantial flooding from Hurricane Sandy. In early 2015, the house was rebuilt, new foundation up. When my friend moved back into the house, the poltergeist was still there, being playful. Him and some friends tried to contact it with a Ouija board and now there are two ghosts in the house, because he believes the Ouija board opened a gate of some kind and let in an evil spirit.

Kelsey went over to the house and burnt sage and did some kind of ceremony. Things got better for a while. But now my friend has four roommates who live in the house and they say the evil ghost says stuff to them like, “Get out.” So, the beat goes on. Oh wait, six roommates if you count the ghosts. None of them are paying him rent.

The Tibetan monks I talked about earlier would be able to get rid of that evil spirit. They have a dagger called a Phurba, which they simply plunge into the ghost to throw it out of its confusion of being stuck between realms. The ghost gets reborn, probably as something lower than human. The ghost becomes a raccoon, or a snake, or a goldfish. It comes back a dog, wagging its tail at you.

Americans just make roommates of their spirits. Joe, in Denver tells me that Marion is nice to talk to on a bad day. She will listen to all his problems, she doesn’t judge. I asked him if it was possible that she wasn’t haunting the apartment, but rather was haunting some of the appliances leftover from the 50s, the fridge and the stove, in particular. He said, “Could be! Most of her best activity happens in the living room though.”

“Like what?”

“She mostly bangs cabinets. Sometimes she throws things, or turns things on. Knocked a wreath off the wall; turned on the TV; sent a book flying off a shelf; turned on the Christmas lights. Came home one night to find her watching Seinfeld.”

Seinfeld will remain in syndication long after this planet is gone.

Hamlet’s father is sitting in a McDonald’s where his castle used to be. His ear still hurts. It always will.

John from Staten Island walks in the door and sits down across from me. “You talk to any of those old fucks that live to be over a hundred and they all say the same thing. They drank everyday. They smoked everyday. They ate fried chicken. And they fucked like rabbits through it all.”  

She clicks the timer, sets her cellphone against the mirror. She pulls her purple underwear down, leans on the bed with her ass in the air. The timer dings. She checks the photo. Is pleased. She shares her ass to her own story. In 24 hours, the ass will vanish forever. For now, in this moment, it exists. Be here now, her ass is saying.

“Nobody ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and they’re not the same person,” the coroner says.

I’m clicking around the internet, trying to learn more about reincarnation so I can avoid it. I stumble upon this question,

Q: “Do dogs get reincarnated?”

A: “Dogs reincarnate every day. Because of the length of the human lifespan, human beings can’t usually reincarnate and rejoin their loved ones again in this life. But because dogs lives are so much shorter, they can—and do—reincarnate and return to their beloved owners.”

Those monks with their mystical daggers stab a ghost and the ghost gets slingshotted through a colorful vortex, that looks like it was painted by Joan Mitchell. The spirit is reborn as a puppy, and then that puppy is jumping up on your bed and licking your face to wake you from your nightmare.

My aunt in New Hampshire claims to have been pushed down concrete cellar steps by a ghost who lived in the cellar. Who maybe still lives in the cellar. Who maybe always will live in the cellar. My aunt got up off the floor and sealed the door behind her.

“Existence is transient, evanescent, inconsistent,” somebody out the window says. I open the blinds and try to see who it was but they are already too far up the sidewalk.

The police finally get out of the way. Everyone leaves. Garbage everywhere. Popped balloons. Wet confetti. Others want to be happier. Others want to abandon their pain. Others are perfectly fine. Sometime around dawn the wind picks up. It makes the wooden blinds shudder against my window. I wake up to Ray Charles singing Hank Williams.

The next day and the day after and the day after and the day after, lying on your back, looking up into the blue, the firmament separating the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth. It’s early in it, and the clouds are pink and new, having just been born into the red sky, but if you wait the color changes, all the colors change. 

Willie Nelson stops being an outlaw for a minute, and he softly sings Irvin Berlin: 

Blue skies smilin’ at me

Nothin’ but blue skies do I see

Bluebirds singin’ a song

Nothin’ but blue skies from now on

Nothin’ but blue skies from now on

Nothin’ but blue skies from now on.

 

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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