Good Luck

By Bud Smith

Short Story

Good Luck: Episode Forty-Three

 

The garbageman was at his kitchen window, looking out. I’m all alone, and I am the Devil, and I am misunderstood. 

He was like everybody I ever knew, everything I ever knew, an island, ashamed for some abstract reason.

Little birds swooped out of the trees and landed in a gang on his lawn, pecking at the grass seed. Each bird in competition with the next.

The man was zoned out, thinking of a way to throw himself in the garbage. But then he snapped out of it, saw the birds, heads bobbing, beaks snapping at his grass seed. Sparrows. Hopping and fluttering and eating.

He opened the window, leaned out and yelled. But the window was loose and fell down on his neck and now he was yelling at God, trying to yank the window up.

The sparrows scattered when he came out onto the lawn in his bathrobe, threw a can of soup.

The youngest sparrow flew away from the trees, where the rest had fled. He flew out over an open field of dust. Flew hard and fast.

A fat drop of rain hit him on the head. The surprise caused his beak to open, and one of the grass seeds to fall into the barren lot. He flew on, over the houses, not wanting to go back to his kind and explain his hunger, his failure, his weakness.

Up above in the sky was a black cloud. The cloud was weeping. It felt inferior. Its tears transformed the dust into mud, and then made a puddle reflecting the underbelly of the weeping cloud. Look at me, I am a monster, I cannot stop my crying, I should murder myself, how does a cloud murder itself, I am too embarrassed, I’ve accomplished nothing, I wish I could descend into mist, spread out and have no influence, or rise up and dissipate. Here, take this sorrow from me, do something with it. 

Plunk plunk plunk plunk.

The seed opened up, a hair of green poked up.

The sun had arrived. The sun felt bad too. The sun was always sweating and didn’t want anyone to look at it. The sun had no mirrors in its house because they had all melted. The sun was fat and throbbing and burning and too far away to know it was the most important thing to everything and everyone. Plants, insects, birds, fish, reptiles, humans, other mammals, shadows.

Now the grass was full grown, and trapped in the center of a dusty lot. It looked around. To its left was a million miles of dust. To its right was a million miles of dust. Behind it, in front of it, there was no other grass to talk to, or learn from, or commiserate with. In the distance, this blade of grass could see a lawn with sprinklers going. A city of other blades of grass. It felt cheated. If it had been planted over there, it could have had city friends, and they could have talked about grass opera, and grass baseball. In the other distance, the blade of grass could see a patch of weeds, and wildflowers, with random blades of grass not like itself, which it feared. Red fescue, zoysia, Kentucky blue. They were off on some adventure in the wilderness but it was stuck here, in solitary confinement for a crime it didn’t think it’d even committed, yet would answer for.

The blade of grass screamed. Then when it couldn’t scream anymore it was silent. Night fell and all was dark. The moon appeared. The moon was the little sister of the sun and could not break even Earth’s gravity, let alone the sun’s. Little sister to a little sister. Everything the moon did was possible only because the sun reflected off it. The moon did not know that people gazed up at it. Loved it. Made love under it and thanked it. And wrote poems to it. The moon pulled so hard away from the earth, the tides rose, and the water seeped up, and dew covered the creatures. The blade of grass looked up at the moon and pledged its love to it too, everything did. The sun would blind you. But the moon, with its pockmarked face and sad glow, healed all, its flawed beauty inspired.

No choice, the grass accepted its insignificance and found peace in surrender. It stood tall and soaked up the daylight, released a single breath’s worth of oxygen, gulped up by a passing midnight raccoon.

A grasshopper leapt over a fallen flower. It wore a green suit of armor. It was exhausted from jumping in the green suit of armor but that’s all it could do. Jump. Jump. It leapt through the dandelions. Jump. Jump.

Ants marched out of their hill and laughed at the panting grasshopper because it couldn’t march and the grasshopper told the ants they were simple, stupid fascists and it was a free thinking acridomorpha. They were lucky it wasn’t in the mood to eat some ants.

A bee flew over, and the ants and the grasshopper looked up and wished they could fly, felt pathetic to be grounded. But the bee was addicted to nectar and felt it had no power of its own, it got dope sick if it didn’t get nectar. The bee’s life was dictated by its hive, and its drug.

The grasshopper leapt across the barren field in misery. When it reached the lone blade of grass, standing by itself, it ate the blade of grass. The grasshopper was tired. It closed its eyes and slept. It awoke in the dark and heard the sound of all its brothers and sisters singing. It went toward the song. But as it got to the center of the song, frogs appeared out of the puddles. A trick! A dirty trick! The biggest, oldest frog ate the grasshopper.

That old frog had lived a long time. She’d finally eaten enough grasshoppers to retire. The frog said goodbye to all her frog friends and announced her retirement from the group. “What will you do? Where will you go?” The old frog said there was more to life than work. This was news to the other frogs.

Some of the younger frogs were jealous of the old frog, couldn’t wait until they could retire, they were angry and felt slighted by the systems that kept them out there all night singing and eating gnats and pretending they were happy with it—how mortifying.

But all the old frog wanted was her youth. The old frog had played elder statesman long enough. Let some other frog do it now, she was tired. A malaise crept over her, day in, day out. It was time to celebrate, break the spell, cut loose.

The old frog hopped away from the young frogs, entered a new forest of wild flowers and weeds. She sat perfectly still and reflected on her many regrets in love and fortune, goals she’d never reached professionally and privately.

And the night cooled. And her heart slowed without her knowing. And in the morning when the sun came up, the frog was dead, and the bugs found her.

The young sparrow came back over the houses, after a long absence, flapping his wings, hungry, returning for more easy grass seed. He would eat the easy grass seed from the garbageman’s lawn, and come up with a new life plan. Big changes were ahead. But then the sparrow saw a swarm of ants eating a frog, and he swooped down and ate an ant, and then another ant. He wasn’t hungry anymore, wasn’t desperate. He flew up to the top of a telephone pole and thought about how useless and odd the other sparrows had made it feel. Maybe coming home was a mistake.

In the weeks since he’d been gone, following the attack with the soup can, the sparrow had faced many hardships. The nest he’d built in the glade had been washed away by a surprise flood. The nest he’d built in the eve of the barn had been lost to a fire sprung up from a blue lightning bolt. He was returning to his people, reluctantly, because he needed help.

A silver jet passed overhead. It was like another lightning bolt. The sparrow was looking for an answer, and so the jet became the answer. The sparrow chased after the jet. But the sparrow was too slow. The vapor trail stretched ahead for infinity. The sparrow’s flight faltered. He crashed down into thorn bushes. Cut up. Feathers shredded. Eyes wet. Incapable, inept, foolish, no talent, loser, little bird bitch, these were the things the sparrow called himself. He didn’t want to be a sparrow. He was sorry to be a sparrow. He wanted to be a silver fighter jet.

So, here’s the part of the story where the sparrow enrolled in flight school to try and gain some self-worth.

It was a human school. In Virginia. Built of concrete blocks and steel. Surrounded by rolling green hills and farmland. They had one training jet for eight students. The school had been open for ninety-nine years and only accepted humans.

So, of course, the humans who administered the program didn’t want to let the sparrow in. But the sparrow got a bird-speaking lawyer and pressed a discrimination suit. The administrators had no choice after that. They became humbled gods, beaten and bitter. The sparrow liked that.

The sparrow had problems communicating with his instructors. They tried to flunk him out on day one. In further litigation, the flight school was forced to hire a translator that spoke bird. The sparrow excelled at his studies.

Still, he was plagued by other problems. The flight suits were one hundred times too big for him. The oxygen mask didn’t seal because of his sharp protruding beak. He couldn’t reach the pedals. He had no hands for the yoke.

Ultimately, the sparrow didn’t make it through the first semester. It wasn’t safe to let him pilot a one hundred sixty million dollar jet. Everyone knew that but him.

When he heard he was getting cut from the program, the sparrow ripped his feathers out, flew wildly at his translator. The translator ducked and rolled. After the sparrow’s impact with the chalkboard, he ricocheted over the translator’s head and went through the window, into the jack pines.

The translator shouted, “Come back, let’s talk!”

The sparrow lived in exile. He built no nest.

For a year, his sole mission was revenge. He flew over the training jet parked on the runway, and shit on the windshield.

His mornings were spent in the branches, chirping curses and twitching in a rage, waiting for the janitor to come out with the bucket, the soap, the hose.

In the afternoon sun, he watched the janitor clean the jet, until it shined brightly. Once it was clean, the sparrow attacked the jet with his shit again.

The other birds in the trees said, “What’s wrong with that guy?”

“Not sure.”

When they approached with gifts of worms and shiny tinsel, the sparrow screamed from his perch, sent them rushing away.

One morning, the janitor, ashamed to be alive, hid in the shadows beside the school, staring at the jet. He held a rock in his hand. As the sparrow swooped down from the sky, the janitor let loose with the rock and knocked the sparrow into the dust. It was the first time the janitor had ever been proud. He picked the sparrow up, and watched its chest rise and fall. He brought the bird inside to flush it down the toilet.

The translator was just coming out of the break room.

“What’ve you got there?”

“Just a troublesome little bird.”

“Let me see…”

The janitor opened his hands, the sparrow lay there, tongue sticking out.

The sparrow awoke in a small cage, in a beige apartment. The TV was off. The translator was reading a self-help book called Existential Crises for Dummies.

“Let me out,” the sparrow said.

“Will you dive-bomb my leather couch?”

“No promises.”

“Why’d you go to flight school? You already know how to fly. You didn’t need that school. You don’t need a jet.”

“Why did you learn to speak bird, you already knew how to speak human.”

The translator said, “I have a hard time having conversations with humans. I like talking to birds. It calms me down. With people, I never know what to say. I’m a real dumbass. I wish I was a bird.”

“You wouldn’t wish you were a caged bird. Let me out,” the caged bird said.

The translator unhinged the cage. Now free, the sparrow felt ashamed. The silver jet’s spell was broken.

“I’ve got to do something. I can’t go back to how it was.”

“Do what you love,” the translator said. “That’s what this book says.”

The sparrow looked at the book but couldn’t read English.

“Maybe school was a good idea, maybe you were at the wrong one.”

“Maybe.”

At one time, the sparrow had felt part of a community. He’d helped other sparrows build their nests with pieces of string, blades of grass, shiny misplaced objects. But once those birds had achieved success in life, they’d turned their backs on him, taking his kindness as weakness. So he’d stopped helping. But he had enjoyed that work.

Now the sparrow looked back on his exile in the jack pines as wasted time. Wasted life.

“Thank you,” he said.

The translator opened the window.

Out flew the sparrow.

 

The sparrow took night classes at the community college. He paid for the classes by flying important messages around. He lied and said he was a dove. They bought it.

After he got his bachelor’s degree, the sparrow got accepted into a top architectural program. He graduated with honors.

He lived in a small apartment in the city, designing skyscrapers. But soon he felt called back to the  country life. Besides, he was getting older, and the local dating scene was just a bunch of dopey pigeons, constantly cooing. He spent his lonely nights sketching blueprints, beak dipped in ink. Ink pecked across the paper. He imagined the sound of the green leaves rustling in the trees, him caught in the middle of that sublime symphony. He delivered the blueprints to his office. Donated his tiny pinstripe suits to a hard-up family of warblers who were living under one of the eves of the Chrysler Building.

He flew back to where he’d hatched. He didn’t return to the community he’d left. But he lived close by, so he could visit those birds from time to time and slowly reconnect. He built a wooden bird house in the branches of an apple tree. The nest had multiple entrances, various decks, a weather-vane, a doorbell that chimed Mozart.

As he sat inside for the first time, he was surprised by a knock. The sparrow nudged open the door. It was a love bird with a piece of orange shoelace in her beak. He let her in.

The sparrow and the love bird married. They planned to have children in the spring. The wild winds blew wild in the rough dark night. The earth became hard, frost coated the ponds, and drainpipes, and blades of grass, and the frogs dug themselves into the mud, and slept, and the grasshoppers and ants dug themselves into the earth and slept and slept. And above, the sky slept. And the clouds formed a gray dozing wall blocking the moon, which slept, and the sun which never slept, was driven insane because of it. The sparrows watched other birds migrate toward the equator, but they stayed behind, and slept, nuzzled, shivering, dreaming.

The garbageman was still alone and still misunderstood. He opened his kitchen window and looked out across the snow. In the branches of his newest apple tree, he saw someone had stuck a birdhouse. He put his snow boots on and walked out and looked up at the bird house. Who the fuck. Someone playing a joke on him. Or some neighborhood kids. Anyway, he threw a handful of birdseed on top of the snow. Back at his kitchen window, he watched the birds come down, just the two of them. Wrens, he thought. Yes, wrens.

He lit a cigarette and wondered who he could call on the telephone to help him. He’d never been religious, but all he could think about anymore was sin sin sin sin sin sin sin sin sin sin sin. He suspected he was the Devil, for no other reason than the chemicals in his brain told him so. He could not recall the numbers for friends or family. He couldn’t call 911 and ask for help. The police would laugh at him. He couldn’t go to church, he would burst into flames. He turned on the TV and found out it was Tuesday. His work wanted him to come in and plow the roads. They’d been on him for that, day after day, the snow, day after day, but he was faking the flu. He’d had the flu for two weeks, he said, when, in reality, he hadn’t had the flu at all. What he was doing was a sin. Everything was a sin. He would go to Hell for it. He had not let God into his heart. He refused to. His vanity, his pride, his fear. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. The man turned off the TV, drew the shades, went back to the couch and slept.

In his dream, he arrived at the gates of Heaven. The gates were open. He walked in. The angels were there. The angels were all real. There were angels who worked in the basement which was the mailroom; and angels who worked in cubicles on the first floor doing data entry on sin and sinners; and there were angels on the third floor who took those Excel sheets of sin and created reports; and on the fourth floor were the case workers who read the reports, and stamped each report HELLBOUND; and on the fifth floor the middle managers sat and gossiped about everyone below them; and on the sixth floor, upper management angels sat on comfortable couches and drank coffee and sometimes sent down a memo to have one of the middle management angels fire a few of the case worker angels, or a batch of the report writing angels, or a whole slew of the data entry angels; and on the seventh floor were the payroll angels who didn’t have to do much, because there was no money in Heaven, they’d just write a check that said “You Are Blessed” and there was a stamp from God on the check, so every angel who got that check felt a thrill; and on the eighth floor, was the CEO of Heaven, the boss angel who stamped “God” on the paychecks of the angels, but the CEO wasn’t God, the CEO did whatever they wanted though, had no other duties, and there was no consequence to his sloth because the only consequence could come from God; and on the ninth floor of Heaven, was where God used to be, but the ninth floor of Heaven was empty, dusty, full of scattered debris, locked and long abandoned.

Did I fail to mention that every atom in existence was ashamed? And within that atom, every proton, neutron, and electron, felt at fault, and was disgraced. The molecules, all of them, were bonded together, only in embarrassment and shame. The compounds too, were ashamed. Every living cell. Every drop of blood was consumed with self-loathing. Why couldn’t it just be light, why did it have to be blood? It would have liked to have illuminated the earth. Why did it have to run through veins and blast through the chambers of whatever beast’s heart it was blasting through. What was it being punished for? The skin of the beast was oily and begging not to be looked at. The skin wished it could be a wave in the ocean and not the prison walls holding in all the other wailing prisoners of the body.

The dogs were the only ones who were happy. And that was why we loved them, and why we could briefly, for a moment or two, love ourselves.

The garbageman woke up and decided to shoot himself, get it over with, it was Wednesday. He got in his car and drove to the sporting goods store and bought a shotgun. His hands were shaking as he passed the clerk his credit card. He put his hands in his pockets, and looked away while the clerk unlocked the gun from the case. It was close to Christmas time. The man thought about where he would die. The dusty field next to his house. He’d walk to the middle of it, crouch down in front of the gun. When he looked back at the clerk, he saw the clerk was wrapping the shotgun up in gift paper.

There were angels blowing horns on the paper. There were bells on the paper.

The garbageman bent over laughing and sucked wind, and the clerk said, “What?” The garbageman backed away from the register and the clerk said, “What? What did I do?” And the garbageman fell into a display of camouflaged baseball caps and some of them fell on the floor. The garbageman rushed down the aisle. The clerk didn’t understand. When the man left the store, the clerk ran out into the lot and he shouted, “You paid already. You forgot your gun!” The man started his brown car, drove through the icy lot. The clerk watched him for sometime. Watched him pull onto the road and watched his brown car get stuck at the light. The clerk shook his head. The light changed. The brown car pulled into the lot where the animal shelter was. The clerk went back inside and talked about it all day. Whenever he had a customer come in, he talked about the man who had paid for the shotgun. He pointed to it. Wrapped up in festive red paper, sitting on the shelf behind the register. “He paid for it and everything. People are so stupid you can’t even, you just can’t even, makes me humiliated just being human, thinking, you just can’t even. Can you?”

The garbageman adopted a scrappy gray dog, and felt relieved. The Devil would not adopt a scrappy gray dog, and so maybe he wasn’t the Devil, after all.

The dog was nervous in the house. But the man was patient with the dog. A Scottish terrier. The man had adopted the Scottish terrier, though the people in the shelter had said she was a problematic dog and he would not be happy with her. The man adopted the Scottish terrier because she was about to be put to death.

The Scottish terrier kept pissing on the rug. The man was patient with the Scottish terrier. He named it, Good Luck because she was good luck. She slept with him in the bed, and his nightmares went away, and she pissed again on the rug.

The man brought Good Luck with him to work. She rode with him in the garbage truck. His bosses, were going to fire him because of the dog, but then the man went and saw a therapist, and the therapist put him on Seroquel, and two other little white pills, and Good Luck was registered as a service dog and got a little blue vest.

The days grew warmer. Good Luck pissed on the rug. The man ripped up all the rugs, threw them in the back of his own garbage truck on a Sunday, and drove the rugs to the town dump, with Good Luck smiling in the passenger seat, wagging her tail, barking up at the blue sky, and the stray clouds, and two hawks gliding over the soccer field.

Now that the rugs were gone, when Good Luck walked around the house it sounded like this: Click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click. Click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click. The man loved that sound. He loved his friend.

 

Now the city of green grass again, talking about grass baseball and grass politics and grass boxing. Now the rivers, so fast and so swift, full and cold down from the mountains. Now every fish in that water wishing it was a cactus. And now every killer wishing it was a mother singing lullabies. The sparrows leave their nest and fly over the green cities of suburban lawns, looking for worms. Now the people out on their lawns raking. Now the sound of chainsaws. Lawnmowers. Leaf blowers. Wood chippers. Now the frogs crawling up, now the ants marching up, now the bees waking, sick and needing nectar. Now the flowers full of pollen and like cows lowing, begging to be milked, the flowers shaking and twisting on their stems until the hummingbird finds them, coats its wings with pollen, flies on in a blur, painting the world with flowers. Now the dog running in the yard, alive. Now the man, looking at the barren patch, and deciding to try grass seed there again.

The hawks diverge. The sparrows stick together. The hawks spot the sparrows. The hawks come together. The sparrows see the hawks. The sparrows diverge. The hawks diverge. The sparrow is killed by the hawk. The sparrows are killed by the hawks.

The power plants keep making electricity. The earth keeps spinning. The flight school takes in potential pilots. The frogs catch some gnats. The grasshopper eats a strawberry. Some angels in Heaven are caught drinking at their cubicles and are expelled, down to Hell, at least in a dream.

Now see the hawks, they are flying again.

One of the hawks passes over town hall. The other hawk flies over the water tower and glides over the town. They are on the top of the food chain. They are lonely and they are misunderstood. The hawks have tried to make a nest together and to have children, but they have not been able to. The male hawk is ashamed, thinks there is something wrong with his body. The female hawk is ashamed, thinks there is something wrong with her body.  The female hawk wishes she could just be a trembling pale star in the infinite night sky. The male hawk wishes he could be a snow-capped mountain with clouds kissing its peak from all sides.

This is how the female hawk dies: she lands on the power lines, and there are exposed wires, where a tree branch rubbed them away, and she completes the circuit and is electrocuted, dies charred and aflame.

This is how the male hawk dies: he is lost in the daylight and swoops too low over the road. He strikes a windshield and the windshield breaks, and the hawk dies, and the blue car skids onto the shoulder and the driver gets out bewildered and feeling pitiful for having caused the death of such a beautiful creature. Unable to face what he has unwittingly done, the man drives away, leaves the body of the hawk on the side of the road. No one sees this. You’re the only person who ever saw this.

Now a brown car comes down the road. The driver sees something in the road. His dog jumps all around. He slows the car, opens his door. Good Luck tries to jump out. The man scolds the dog, tells it to sit down, the dog sits in the driver’s seat. Paws on the steering wheel. The man looks down at the hawk. White-tailed. What beautiful feathers, but some as if dipped in red paint. Good Luck leaps up on the center console and looks out the windshield. The man shakes his head, walks toward the brown car. His dog can see tears in his eyes. She starts to cry too. The man opens the trunk. He walks back to the hawk with a small cardboard box, gloves on now. He puts the hawk in the box, and all of it in the trunk of the brown car. On their way through town, he stops at the sporting goods store and gets his money back.

The sun is shining and the man digs a hole in his yard where the grass will not grow. He puts the body of the hawk in the hole and covers the hawk with dirt. He wets down the dirt and lets it settle. He opens a bag of grass seed and puts the seed over the dirt. He covers it all with straw. He waits. He can hear his dog in the house, barking at the window. He opens the door and lets Good Luck out into the yard. Good Luck sniffs at the straw. Sniffs at the dirt. Sniffs at the seed. Sniffs at the hawk below it all. Sniff’s herself. Sniffs the man’s shoe, and the cuff of the man’s pants. Satisfied, Good Luck sits and looks up at the man, and the man looks down at his dog. Tomorrow, the worms eat the hawk. And the next day, the sparrows eat the worms. And the next day, the grass begins to grow.

 

 

 


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

5 responses to “Good Luck”

  1. elyse h says:

    holy shit. that was incredible. this bit gave me such chills: “Unable to face what he has unwittingly done, the man drives away, leaves the body of the hawk on the side of the road. No one sees this. You’re the only person who ever saw this.”

    so many nuggets of truth in this piece. the ridiculousness of our collective shame, our ignorance about our roles.

  2. Trace Hentz says:

    Bud, you are amazing, again and again and again.

  3. Meg Leahy says:

    “So, here’s the part of the story where the sparrow enrolled in flight school to try and gain some self-worth.” Genius.

    So much amazingness here, thanks for adding a little magic to my Saturday morning with this piece!

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