Death

By Bud Smith

Short Story

Good Luck: Episode Forty-Four

 

Why do people write stories? Because they’ll die soon, that’s why. Why do people read stories? Because they’re alive, for now, that’s why.

The editor was overwhelmed. Submissions poured in. Another 2000 words about someone’s grandma dying, $20 deposited into the account. By the end of the first week, a hundred stories a day.

The editor called me on the phone, “I don’t know what to do, man. I can’t keep up.” It was the middle of the day, I was in bed. The sun shined through the Venetian blinds.

“How many stories do we have now?”

“Over a thousand.”

“Well, it’ll get worse, just before we close.”

“I need help.”

“I’d love to help you pick a winner, Joey, but I’m on night shift. I’m in no condition.”

“Yeah. Okay. No worries.”

“Just batch select and reject them all. Send that form letter I sent you.”

The form letter said this:

 

Yo, thanks for sending your story about your grandma dying to the Good Luck novel. We got a lot of stories about a lot of people’s grandmas dying, and regret that there is no place in the larger work for the death of your specific grandma. Much Respect, The Editor.

 

The editor said, “I did get a couple really good stories. Ashleigh sent one that’s really beautiful.”

“Did you say Ashleigh? As in, your girlfriend?”

“What? Yeah. She sent this amazing story about—”

“Joey, refund her $20. She can’t win the contest. It’s unethical. It’s like how the family of the guy who picks the lotto numbers out of that ping pong ball machine can’t play the lottery.”

“Unethical? I thought you said that. I didn’t think you knew that word. She sent the best story, though.”

“And the mom of the guy who picks the lottery numbers is always the best at ‘guessing’ the winning ones.”

“True. But this is crazy. While we’ve been on the phone, William Carlos Williams has now sent in…four hundred…and nine submissions. He sent that red wheel barrow poem in sixteen times alone.”

“He’s a doctor, he can afford it.”

 

The next day, driving home from the garbage burning plant as the sun rose, I got another call from Joey. “You were right. It was just a total landslide there at the end. It’s going to take me weeks to read all of these.”

“Put up an ad, get some readers. People love doing that stuff.”

“All right what about this:

The Good Luck novel is looking for six readers. One winner will be awarded $10,000. Final judge, Joseph Grantham. Submissions open to fiction, essay, poetry. Readers will be compensated.

“What do you think?” he said.

“Here how about this:

The Good Luck novel is looking for six four volunteer readers. One winner will be awarded $10,000. Final judge, Bud Smith. Submissions open to fiction, essay, poetry.

“Damn, volunteers. And you’re final judge?”

“I’m final judge, yeah.”

 

Nine hundred and one people sent in a story about how they were a hero with a gun. The worst of which was from the crossing guard who usually stood below my living room window screaming at traffic to “Slow Down!” She sent a story about a crossing guard who sees a sports car run a red light and is just about to run over a group of little boys but she pulls out a .44 magnum and blasts the driver straight to heaven. Runner up for worst gun story was from a memory of myself, Bud, age 6, who sent in a story written in crayon about Russians invading his elementary school but he shoots them with a machine gun and they invade heaven instead.

The popsicle man—a stranger who I’d seen walking down Bleeker Street eating a green popsicle, last November, on a freezing day when my coat didn’t fit me, and I was shivering—sent a short story about how he loved popsicles and how he didn’t believe the Holocaust happened.

Seven hundred people sent a story where at the end everything was revealed to be a dream.

Five hundred and sixty six people sent in a story where they returned to their hometown only to find that it wasn’t the same because they’d changed. In more than half of those small town submissions, they either had sex with a cowboy sheriff or got a beer with the cowboy sheriff, but in almost every submission in that genre, a grandma died.

In one story, returning to the small town and playing paddy cake with the cowboy sheriff turned out to all be a dream.

A lot of people saved the world in their submissions.

Except this one guy. He sent in a story about how the earth was slowly dying and he was the only one who could save it. A wizard shows up and gives him a magic sword, but the guy refuses the sword. The wizard leaves it on the couch. The guy is watching football on TV. The football game is interrupted because an ancient evil has risen and is melting the polar ice caps. The guy changes the channel and watches a different football game. When that game is interrupted by reports of the ancient evil knocking a billion birds out of the sky, dead at once, the man stands up, walks past the sword, crouches down, turns on his Xbox. The next day at work, some of his coworkers have called out because their children have been taken away in the night by the ancient evil. The man puts on his headphones and listens to a comedy podcast, fires up Excel. At lunch time, he walks out of the office building and tries to get a slice of pizza but he finds most of the businesses down the street have been set on fire by the ancient evil. He heads up the hill instead, and gets a salad even though salad makes him sick, but what is he going to do? That night the wizard comes back and tells the man that every inhabitant of earth will be dead in five weeks if he doesn’t take the sword to the middle of the Sahara desert and slay the ancient evil. The man has excuse after excuse for the wizard. He has no more sick days, or vacation days and if he calls out of work, he will lose his job. The economy is terrible. The wizard just stares at him. The man tells the wizard he will slay the ancient evil with the sword this weekend. The wizard just stares at him. “You are the only one who can save us.” The man says, “I know, I know, I will.” But that weekend, he goes on a date instead. His date is having trouble breathing because the air is thick with doom. The man sits across from her at the restaurant and he thinks she would be so much more attractive if she wasn’t dying of whatever is killing her. He doesn’t get laid that night and falls asleep consumed with bitterness. At dawn, he wakes up to a shrieking sound. He walks back out into the living room and sees the sword is glowing with pink fire. He picks up the sword and the shrieking stops. He walks to the sink and extinguishes the pink fire. He opens the closet and puts the sword in the closet and closes the door. He sits down and tries to turn on the Xbox but the power is out in the building. He lights a candle and reads a spy novel. Outside the window, the buildings are shaking because the earthquakes have gained strength. Lava is running into the public park.

Three hundred and three people sent in stories about a love triangle. The worst of the love triangle stories was about a man who accidentally switches brains with his dog, and he has to choose between a Boston terrier and a Shih Tzu who both love him. Meanwhile, his dog who is occupying his human body, climbs the corporate ladder at rapid speed because he pants a lot, is excited, friendly, shakes his butt, fetches sticks and slippers.

A memory of my grandma sent in a story about her grandma dying.

My memory of my other grandma sent in a story about a person with a gun shooting the gun out of the hand of a person trying to shoot someone else dead because of a love triangle gone bad.

My brother, William, age 31, sent in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, where a cleric, a barbarian, two elves, and a dwarf, walk into a bar and there’s suddenly a person by the jukebox with a gun that shoots guns.

Willie Nelson sent in lyrics to a new song about a cloud crying and making flowers bloom in the desert.

Mary Oliver sent in a poem that’s the sequel to her ‘one wild and precious life’ poem, where Mary Oliver says, it turns out you might live two semi-wild lives that are only semi-precious, so it’s okay to play Dr. Mario all day if that’s what you want, who cares.

There were just heaps and heaps of shitty stories. The editor didn’t have to read more than the first two or three sentences of most of them to see how shitty they were. Soon he was batch selecting them fifty at a clip. Nope. Nope. Nope.

Seventy-seven stories came in about how awesome horses are.

In one story, a small town cowboy sheriff retires from the force and becomes a gun professor at the local university. While there he has an affair with two pupils, setting off a four way love square between the pupils and his wife, a woman who loves horses. The story sucked. To make it worse, it had a disjointed ending where the cowboy professor goes to the gas station and he doesn’t have his gun anymore and is shot and killed by a person robbing the gas station. Then it’s all revealed to be a dream and the sheriff wakes up and is still a small town sheriff. His wife is brushing her horse in their two car garage. She doesn’t have a car, and he gets in a big argument with her about climate change, tells her it’s all a goofy fairy tale. On the way to work, at a traffic light, he sees a sexy woman in a red car (one of the students from his dream) then he looks in the back seat and sees the other sexy student.  They’re in an Uber. Cool. He waves and they don’t know him. Not cool.

One of the best stories was sent in by Death. It seemed to be autobiographical.

Death walks along the beach and sees a golden child building a sandcastle. The child sees Death and doesn’t know to be afraid. Death helps the child build the sandcastle. The sun grows higher in the sky. Death sweats in his black robes. Death reaches out to take the life of the child, but the child dives out into the surf, at play. The waves are violent. Death dodges a wave and the wave knocks over the sandcastle. Death’s robes are soaked. Death is pulled into the riptide. A wave knocks over Death. The child is beyond the breakers now. Death is drowning. He uses all his strength to get back to the shore. The robes drag him down. He crawls up out of the water, weeping. He stands up and steps out of his heavy robes and stands pale and naked in the surf. He sees his scythe has washed out toward the child who is farther out now and floating on his back and smiling up at the blue sky. The child calls out to Death to come swim. Death looks back at the beach and sees four angels standing on the dunes. The angels saw the whole thing and they mock Death. Death walks naked out of the tide and the four angels meet him in the middle of the beach. Death wrestles the angels the rest of the day. Together, the angels are able to drive him to his knees, but Death knows dirty tricks and then three of the angels are whimpering, and the sky is dark and the stars are white fires trembling. They wrestle on. The child is very far away now, sitting on the beach of a distant island. He can see the sun rising behind Death and the four angels. The sun is blood red and the child has to block it out with his hands. When the four angels feel the heat of the sun on their bodies, they surrender to Death and the wrestling match is finished. Death demands from the first angel a handful of his curly brown hair. He demands of the second angel, his pants. He demands the third angel’s shirt. He demands the fourth angel’s sandals. They give him these tributes, and with these tributes, Death is able to adorn himself and look handsome again. He walks away from the beach and the angels see a blinding white light where Death walks. The child is on an island populated only with purple butterflies. The disgraced angels see the golden child standing on the shore. The angels call to the child and tell the child they are coming for his life once they are rested enough to swim. The angels lie down and sleep. The child sees something wash up on the shore of his little island. First comes the scythe, and then come the black robes. The child picks up the scythe, the child dries the robe on a rock. He sharpens the rusted scythe with a stone. When the sun sets, the angels wade into the surf and come toward the child. The butterflies, all million of them, fly up toward the moon. As the angels come up onto the beach of the little island, they see the child has put on the black robes, and has picked up the scythe, and is swinging it slowly, ready for them.

My ex-girlfriend Melissa sent in a wonderful story about a bird with a broken wing found in a meadow on a spring day, which coincides with the narrator’s grandmother’s cancer diagnosis, and as spring becomes summer, her grandmother gets sicker and sicker, but the bird’s wing heals over time, and then sometime in the fall, the bird is able to fly south with all the other birds, but the narrator of the story won’t let the bird go because she thinks if she does, her grandmother will die, and so the bird lives in a small cage in the hospital room, chirping and squawking and keeping the grandmother up all night, exhausting her, making her look sicker than she is, and on the day the doctors think the grandmother will die, the nurse opens the window and lets the bird fly out, and the narrator sees the bird flying through the ice storm and grieves for her grandmother, but then when she gets to the hospital, her grandmother is alive and well and drinking a Jack and Coke in bed. She is celebrating with the doctor because her test says her cancer is in remission. It was such a great story, if only because a grandmother actually survived a short story, my God, it was revolutionary, Chekhov hadn’t even thought to do that.

I loved a story written by my mom, when she was twenty-seven and I was just two years old. The story was about how happy she was, despite the pain she’d lived through, and all the sad things that had happened to her. She was pregnant with my brother, and the story was a list of hundreds of names she might choose for him. In the last line of the story, she chooses the name William.

My phone rang. The editor asked, “Have you read this story about the guy who loves popsicles and doesn’t believe the Holocaust happened?”

“I did,” I said, a lie.

“It’s the worst story, man. Everybody agrees.”

“Everybody. Oh yeah, you have that staff of volunteer readers…”

“They’re pretty good! Very enthusiastic. They don’t seem to care about what the best story is, they’re pretty fixated on what the worst is. They’re kinda creeping me out.”

“Wait, what does your staff look like?”

“Dressed all in black. Finger-less gloves. This one guy Skyped in today wearing a ski mask.”

“This is not good, Joey.”

“What’s not good.”

“You’ve hired the killers.”

“Killers. I don’t think so. What killers?”

“They were trying to murder you and Ashleigh but you edited your own murder out of the book, which was a good move. They were sneaking around your house while you were sleeping, they were stalking you around town.”

He was silent on the other end of the line.

“Joey, they’re going to go after the popsicle man.”

“That story was really bad. We’re not really killing the worst submission though, right?”

“They will,” I said.

“Can we just announce the winner and forget about it.”

“Who’s the winner?”

“Mikaela sent in this amazing story, you’re going to love it.”

“Your sister? You can’t give the prize to your sister. Read the good ones again, hold the killers off.”

I wasn’t surprised by how many submissions came in, letters addressed to me, about how bad it was getting at the house of memory. The living memories trapped there complained about how the walls were caving in, sections of roof torn away by wind, sickness spreading through the house. This was nothing new. Any time I was stuck on night shift, my mind suffered, and I drank more whiskey to dull my pain and to speed time up. I figured when I got back on the day shift, I’d go there and make some repairs. Fix up my house of memory. What the letters told me, was that I was probably too late. We’d crossed a threshold. There was no going back to the way they used to live, no return to the peace they’d once felt.

 

 


artwork by Rae Buleri

 

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

2 responses to “Death”

  1. What about grandfathers? Before my grandfather passed, he passed gas and blamed my sister who was sitting at his feet on his actual deathbed, and said, “Can’t a man die in peace?”

    True story.

    Category: Memoir

    • Bud Smith says:

      No grandfathers were harmed in the making of “Death.” Grandfathers live on and on. Grandfathers loom everywhere, some of them thousands of years old.

      Thank you for reading and for sharing that memory of that fart. Blaming a fart on someone else rules.

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