Red Skies

By Bud Smith

Short Story

Good Luck: Episode Fifty

 

A day before the end, I forget. It’s warm and the sky is deep red and the clouds roll slowly by. My coworker climbs up on a flatbed truck and lies down and looks up at that red sky and those clouds rolling by. “Hey Bud, you know what my dream is? I forget.” 

 •

I don’t suppose I’m blessed. And I hear someone singing, “Red skies smilin’ at me. Nothin’ but red skies do I see. Redbirds singin’ a song. Nothin’ but red skies from now on.”

 •

I woke up hungover and put on the radio.  Someone was singing about red skies. Rae opened her eyes, said it was such a nice song. Could I play it again? I reached over and the radio was gone and so was the music. A year goes so fast.

 •

Here is a part I forgot.

 •

I finished reading Ada, or Ardor, or Ada, or Ardor, or Adam, or Whatever the Title Is, Pick One by Vladimir Nabokov.

 •

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 daddy snoozed in the garden, poison was dumped down 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. And it’s raining on the Internet.

 •

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.

 •

I forget. It’s getting worse, I think. But I forget.

 •

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.

 •

There’s an echo in here.

 •

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.

My boss didn’t look happy. I asked what was wrong. He was just staring down at his desk. It was his mother. I’d forgotten. She’d had surgery a few weeks before and she’d never recovered from the  anesthesia. When you’re that old, seventy-one, you never really come all the way back. He’d driven down to her house last night and they’d sat on her couch and watched Wheel of Fortune. When the show was over he turned off the TV and asked her, “What did you just watch?” She said, “I don’t know.” There was a note on the table, illegible scribble. “What’s this?” She said, “I don’t know.” His father, eighty-one, stumbled into the room. “Dad, what’s this?” He said it was the time and date for her next doctor’s appointment. “Well, what the fuck does it say? I can’t read it.” His father picked up the paper, his hands were shaking, he was drooling. “I don’t know what it says. I guess she’s forgotten how to write.” “Who’s forgotten how to write,” his mother said. She turned the TV back on. My boss called the doctor’s office and the secretary told him the doctor would call back when he could. But the phone was quiet all that afternoon. All that evening too.

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

My friend took a train from the south to the north to interview a writer he admires. The writer is eighty-three. The writer picked him up from the train and took him back to his house. He poured him coffee from a thermos and put out a plate of cookies. He broke a cookie in half and said, “Never be embarrassed with me. Take as long as you need.” After the interview, my friend walked into the man’s kitchen. He saw a note on the refrigerator. It was from the writer’s daughters. Dad, don’t forget to get a haircut.

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.

 •

Maybe we are doomed to repeat ourselves. Or maybe it’s fine.

 •

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. There’s an echo in here.

 •

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.

 •

Erving Burlin wrote the song “Red Skies” in 1826(?) as a last minute addition to a musical called Beasty, which was a failure. But “Red Skies” was an instant success. On opening night, the audience demanded endless encores of it.

The show ended and the audience screamed, “Red Skies! Red Skies!”

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

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

Erving Burlin sang the words from his seat in the front row. 29 encores of Red 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, you’ll get it all wrong, or you’ll get it right and nobody will have proof, or care.

 •

Wally Nelson died again 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 Roy Charles sang, “You Win Again,” Wally opened his red eyes and drew a sad breath.

 •

Then the door opens and it’s six years ago. 

 •

I’m repeating myself. I’m holding my own hand and slapping myself and saying, “Stop hitting yourself.” I’m trailing off. My memories are disappearing. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or a good thing. 

 •

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 it can be achieved through diligent practice. It’s so hot up here.” His Stratocaster is baby red. 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.

 •

Derek needs a pencil. Not a pen. A pencil.

Standing in MOMA, looking at Joan Mitchell. Two canvases 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. Would, Wine, No Tuna.

 •

Here is a part I forgot.

 •

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.

 •

What?

 •

Janis Joplin starts singing, “Hello Jan, this is Janis who’d just like to wish myself 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. How do I blink? How do I smile? How do I do anything?

 •

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.

 •

I may have told you this already. Stop me if you heard it. 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 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 as 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 daddy is sitting in a Burger King 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. Everything bad they ever did they opened the window and it flew out.”

 •

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.

 •

Here is a part I forget.

 •

“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 are getting worse. Sometime around dawn the wind picks up. It makes the wooden blinds shudder against my window. I wake up to a part I forget.

 •

The next day and the day after and the day after and the day after, lying on your back, looking up into the red, wondering what baby blue was, it’s gone now. 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. 

 •

Red skies smilin’ at me

Nothin’ but red skies do I see

Redbirds singin’ a song

Nothin’ but red skies from now on

Nothin’ but red skies from now on

Nothin’ but red skies from now on.

I forget the end, too.

 

 


Photograph 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.

One response to “Red Skies”

  1. Zach Marcum says:

    Fuck. So good.

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