Self

By Bud Smith

Short Story

Good Luck: Episode Forty-Seven

 

On the rush to the hospital we detoured for cigarettes and I locked the keys to the Chrysler in the ignition while the Chrysler was running.

You can’t go anywhere without cigarettes. You can’t. I don’t care. If somebody had shot me in the head and not Margaret, I’d have asked the EMTs to pitstop at the 7-Eleven to get me smokes. Okay?

Okay. I was drunker than I’d ever been coming out of the store. Sadie and I had been trying to set a personal best/worst/best. And I was high too. I could have been anybody. I tried the door handle and realized my error. Everything has always been an error with me. Well, whoever I was, I’ve been a lot of people since my mother died. Whoever I was, all I’ve ever done is fuck up.

Sadie came tumbling out with a Blue Raspberry Powerade and a get well card. A get well card! Margaret had been gunned down. Bullet to the head. A get well card. 

“What’d you do?” she slurred.

“What’d you do, Sadie? A get well card?”

“Did you—”

“I locked the keys in the fucking car, yeah I did. Jesus fuck.”

Sadie, beautiful, and holding that get well card to her chest, watched her fool yank the handle, and she was quiet.

What was it? Wednesday? Shit man. All this emergency, all this panic on a lonely pine tree Wednesday. Do you know what happened? Here I’ll tell you what I first heard:

Somebody snuck in poor old Miss Margaret’s house and shot her in the skull. God. The bullet disturbed the hidden nest of hornets buried in the wood paneling too. Margaret’s daughter Francine came home with groceries and there was the stink of gunpowder and those demons flying around stinging her and she was screaming and trying to rush to the blood that was her mother but she couldn’t. And then those demons stung the shit out of the volunteer paramedics shortly after.

The details were fuzzy then. They’re no clearer now. But I was about to piss myself. I abandoned the car and snuck around the side of the store and wet the wall down. Sadie tried all the doors. When I came back around zipping up, she was pulling on the trunk. I didn’t understand her. I didn’t understand the gray sky or the blue sky or what people said was love or honor. In life I’ve always been on the precipice of some understanding, but in life I’ve also been at the doorway of my ninth drink, so the details have always been fuzzy, hazy.

Those days I was still collecting money from the class action lawsuit and I was also bartering firewood. 

If you needed firewood, I was your man. 

Jackson winters are cold. I liked being needed. It would be terrible if global warming was real, because then I wouldn’t be needed anymore. All orphans feel this way. Love love love. I found it with Miss Margaret, who took me in when I was six, tied my shoelaces, combed my hair, took me to my mother’s grave. My mother’s name was Peg. She met her maker from a sidewinder missile. Operation Desert Mom. Must be hot out there. Camels and oil fields and nobody in need of firewood. I’ll stay here, thank you very much. 

Now I pounded on the door of the Chrysler. Who would do this? The 7-Eleven was lit up behind me and I was more powerless than usual. I gave up. Lit a cigarette, stopped cursing. I’d run myself out of steam.

Sadie said, “You better do something.” 

Sadie. Oh Sadie. Pretty little thing. Firecracker. Sadie. Oh Sadie, why have you let me put it in you thirteen times in five days? What is wrong with you besides me? I am just temporary. Soon there will be no flaw to you at all. Your husband is perhaps looking at his plane ticket now, missing you, and all the joys of your many varied holes and opinions. 

Sadie who has already survived twenty three years of men of action, who would do things for her, but here I was, a new specimen, a man of inaction and folly. I was only being studied because her man of action, Carl, had been shipped out to deal death in Guam, and her orange jumpsuit daddy was in some jail, who knew which one, pick one, embezzlement. 

“Why don’t you do something, Sadie,” I said, pointing at the bank of pay phones. “Call Francine. No don’t call Francine. Call the hospital and say we’re on our way.” 

She looked at me funny, like I was stupid, and I was.

“Call the hospital? Call the fucking hospital? For what? Just to say hi? You ain’t right.” 

“Look who’s talking. You ain’t right plus one.” I gave her the cigarette from my mouth and she battled it away, deflecting it across the parking lot in a trickle of sparks. After that she kind of stared me down, so I stared her down.

“What?”

“What yourself.”

We were heroically wrecked. We were together that afternoon, having a big old party at her house, enough whiskey and pills and whatever else so we couldn’t hardly stand. We were two bugs who’d been discovered underneath a rock, the rock flipped, gone, here we were, ripe for anyone’s boots. I’d only known her a short time, but an intense time. 

Cold wind made my hair levitate and made her hair levitate and goddamn, we were two trembling people who deserved to die at that moment.

This is how I met Sadie. She’d requested some firewood. I had signs all around town. She refused to barter. I took cash. I delivered the wood. No problems. She wasn’t home. Envelope in the mailbox. Then she called me back that night and complained that the wood was too heavy, in chunks too big. So the next day, I came back and chopped it into smaller pieces and she’d watched from the window. I swung the axe. She watched. I just felt it. When I turned and looked back, I saw the curtains wavering. She ducked to the side, or behind them. Well whatever. She was a looker and lookers can look. 

She spoke to me through the door like she was afraid. I said, “What are you afraid of?” She said I was holding an axe. I laughed. I put the axe in the truck and then she opened the door and instead of giving me the thirty-three dollars she should have, she gave me a kiss. 

Later that night I was in her bed. American flag draped over the television. A picture of her soldier boy looked back at me from the bedside table while she used her mouth on me. I never had a blonde do that to me. Blondes do it better. More control of their tongues. At least this is what my investigations say. Prove me wrong. 

Her wedding ring was in the drawer. Later, the next day, and the day after that and the day after that, she would wear it, after she saw I was cool. Who knew who he was boning in Guam, she said. “In Guam?” I said. As if Guam was a fuck fest. 

Now Sadie looked over at me from the pay phones, she said, “It’s busy.” 

“What’s busy?”

“The hospital is busy.”

I thought about the voicemails. Earlier that day, Sadie was naked and snorting a line off her own tit, as a joke, yelling over the stereo telling me what it would be like to ride a horse on the beach which she had done for her honeymoon in New Jersey. First, I couldn’t believe she got married in New Jersey. Secondly, I didn’t believe there were horses in New Jersey. But then she opened a drawer and showed me a picture, her and her soldier boy, all dolled up, on the beach. Oh another thing, that Clydesdale had a big ol’ dick. 

My cellphone was out on Sadie’s couch, ringing. I was on her water bed, naked, I didn’t hear. Francine called about ten times. In the oldest voicemail, she spoke calmly. Someone had shot her mother. She cried in another voicemail. The voicemail after that she screamed into my machine, where was I? I deleted those voicemails as soon as I heard them, scared to ever have to hear Francine’s lovely voice like that again. Margaret was basically my grandma in this world and she’d been blasted out of her wheelchair in her own home, left there to die by the hands of some maniac, or maniacs, plural—out there now, prowling around our community. Fear spread. Phones rang across the tiny hick town. Newsmen woke up from naps with news, for once.

Sadie and I got dressed, stumbled out to the car, and we shouldn’t have been driving. We got lost along the way. I took a wrong turn and was who knows where. A rush to meet disaster. The hospital had it in for Marlboros. I missed the lot. Jammed on the brakes. Oh thank Heaven, it’s 7-Eleven. 

I kicked the door, dented it. It didn’t matter it was already dented there. 

Some new cars pulled up and I saw Sadie pull down her baseball cap, hiding her eyes. She was embarrassed to be with me. A married woman. She had the only blonde hair in town, two towns over, three towns over, the whole county for all I knew, and I’d been looking all my life.

I went inside the store and grabbed whatever I could to try and break into the car. I told the clerk, “I’ll pay you back, this is an emergency.” He yelled in some foreign language. I ignored him, walked out with anything that looked heavy enough, and he stayed behind the register yelling, threatening. Bottles didn’t break the window. A John Wayne statue didn’t work to break the window. Turned out John Wayne was plastic, only appeared to be made of steel. What worked was a fire log, funny enough. One of those expensive ones, seven bucks for one log, the kind in the fancy wrapper that have that chemical on them that make them easy for pussies to start with a single match. I smashed out the passenger side window with the log, almost broke my wrist, hurt something terrible, hand bleeding.

Sadie walked over, wet eyes, “I got through. Miss Margaret is dead.”

Oh I never told you, Margaret had been Sadie’s third-grade teacher, which is not uncommon around here. Everyone born after “Born in the USA” had her for third grade, myself included. 

I called Francine back and the ringtone played “Kickstart my Heart.” Francine’s favorite song. Francine, who answered crying, who had curly black hair and who wore lace dresses, and who sold flowers at the shop near the entrance to the fairgrounds, and who told me in a shaky voice that the ambulance hadn’t really been necessary, but the driver had been in the church chorus with Margaret, a dear friend. 

“She was gone long before they got here. And the wasps. The goddamn wasps.” 

“We’re on our way,” I said. “You don’t have to do this alone.”

Francine asked me if I was drunk, and who was we? Was I bringing a date to the morgue? 

I looked at Sadie. She had lost her dear third-grade teacher. I saw my reflection in the storefront window. I’d just lost a fake grandmother, or a second mother, my world, again.  

Francine said not to come, she would talk to me later, she had to go. The line went dead but I said, “We’ll be there soon.” The phone slipped out of my hand and fell face down on the curb and broke.

People came out of the store with Pabst and potato chips and Red Bull. They shook their heads at us, Sadie pacing around, and me looking like I did. I said, “Fuck y’all. Fuck y’all.”

Some guy wanted to fight but he had wire-rimmed glasses, a ponytail, and he was holding a hotdog. I told him to hurry up and eat that hotdog and let’s go, bitch, I’ll yank that ponytail right off your head. He got in his truck and drove off instead. Guys with glasses don’t fight. 

I got stupider and stupider. I saw the clerk in through the glass, on the telephone, arms flying. I wanted to go in there and whack him in the head with the yuppie log.

But Sadie broke my spell. She climbed in the passenger side, reached past the broken glass, popped my door open. “Durak! Get in, let’s go.”

A lot of her husband’s friends were cops. Those people are always soldiers, or cops, or the mayor. I put on the headlights. We hummed past their dark houses. 

So then the night began its slow crawl toward forever. I drove catatonic. 

Sadie had known Miss Margaret when she still had the use of her legs, before she fell off the stage, choir rehearsal. My mother was there, saved her life. I was in my mother’s uterus. One minute I could hear them singing. The next minute I heard the sirens. 

Peggy Durak. Who, just days after I was born, joined the Air Force because she heard the voice of God tell her to do it. Up into the wild blue yonder. Barrel roll after barrel roll over golden dunes.

Margaret had said, “Your momma is flying B-52 bombers for the Lord now, in the war against Lucifer.” I pictured Mom, angelic, pulling the lever, holy water and Bibles spilling through the sky from the belly of the bomber. Bombs. Jesus’ face. Jesus weeping.

Francine sang in the choir too. Everybody did, or at least they faked it. I never did get anything out of the church except a surrogate family. I’m not complaining. I started drinking when I was eleven. Father Terry used to drive me around in his car and let me drink as much as I wanted. He’d let me drink till I puked, and then he’d wipe the puke from my mouth. They’re not all bad, those Catholic priests. Don’t believe what you hear. Francine sang so sweetly. Still does. She lost her virginity to Father Terry. She doesn’t have anything bad to say about him either. Our Father, maybe my father. I asked him once and he filled a flower vase with Jim Beam and passed it over. Last we ever talked. A man of few words. 

The wind whipped in the Chrysler. The trash in the backseat levitated. Goodbye, lottery tickets. Cellophane. All of it.

When we got to the hospital it was hard to walk. I pissed against a car and Sadie squatted and pissed too. Then I slipped on the ice and hit my face on a bumper and tasted blood. She helped me up, we couldn’t figure out how to get in the revolving doors and some fat fuckface orderly yelled at us that we couldn’t come in the hospital in our condition. Imagine that. I yelled, “It’s not a country club.” 

He shoved me back through the revolving door and then it was a whole scene when I came back inside and knocked him down. Skedaddled to the Chrysler.

“I’ll see Miss Margaret at the funeral parlor. That’ll be better.”

“Yeah,” Sadie said. “I don’t feel so good.”

We smoked the whole pack of cigarettes, sitting there, crying like babies. I begged her to leave her husband, and she begged me to swallow those words and let them stay in my stomach.

She wouldn’t leave him, she’d made an oath. I could have back the Hawaiian shirt I gave her as a gift if that was what I wanted. I said that made no sense, what did the Hawaiian shirt have to do with anything? “Well I just don’t want to feel like you think I deceived you or took advantage of you. I’ll even, here…” She opened her purse and looked for loose bills but couldn’t find any. 

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to pay you for the firewood, and then when these cops leave, you better bring me home.”

“You’re not paying me for that. And keep the shirt.” It was the nicest, tightest Hawaiian shirt you ever saw, with little glowing volcanoes on it. “Nobody is taking advantage here, it’s just a natural disaster. No. It’s a man-made disaster. It’s murder, I mean. Do you really want to go home? How can you? What about a Holiday Inn? You want to make a baby in a Holiday Inn?”

“Can’t think of anything I want less.” 

“Holiday Inn Express?”

When the coast was clear and the night was dark and quiet again, I turned us around and drove across the ice back the other way through town. But just as we were almost to her house, I saw there was a Toyota Tercel in the driveway, and she asked if it would be okay to see my apartment instead. 

That was supposed to be our last night together, we swore. Giving her a week to clear her head before he came in on the jet. Well, fate give us three more nights, wild and raunchy, desperate and fun, harrowing and now I’m all out of adjectives. 

She grew to hate me, and I grew to hate her too, but she kept me sane and at least we were growing. I let her work her demons out on my cock and balls. I guess that’s all they were good for. She told me later that the car in the driveway was her mother-in-law’s. I didn’t care. Had not asked. Had not thought to ask. Fate was a busted nut on a beautiful woman who could have been a Dallas cheerleader but she refused to sacrifice herself to Texas. Everybody’s loss. And they’d have had to zoom in on her big blue American eyes and white smile and everything else after each commercial break, good for the ratings. Fate was that same woman never leaving this boobytrap town, me for certain never leaving either. I listened to fate instruct me to never say hello to her if I saw her at the supermarket or the video store, starting right now, this moment, forever more, evermore, goodbye, thank you for your time and attention, Alec Durak. 

Later, my hand turned a funny color.

Later, I went and saw Francine and apologized and helped with the planning of the burial. Or what was left of the planning. I’d been gone. 

Later, I went back to the 7-Eleven and the clerk shouted for me to leave the store, but I said “Shut up.” I bent over and saw the price of the fancy fire log and I paid him triple what it was worth (in real firewood). And I paid him for the plastic John Wayne statue, and for two glass bottles of Mexican cola. He accepted my apology. We were good. I saw him sometimes outside the store after that, randomly, as if he had just been born into the world, walking a dog, getting his oil changed, eating ham and eggs everywhere.

Later that week, the chief of police said there was no foul play suspected, the cause of Margaret’s death was Margaret herself. Francine recoiled in her wicker chair when she heard the news. “Suicide? That son of a bitch wants my vote? Forget it.” She wanted the murder solved. As the days moved on, she cooled, and cooled and cooled. I didn’t recognize her anymore. She turned into some other Francine, no longer my pretend sister. 

Margaret changed in people’s minds. Went from a caring person who’d been slain by the Hole in the Wall Gang, plucked from this earth with so many good years to go, and gosh she really had gotten around so smoothly in that wheelchair, into a stupid, selfish, inconsiderate dead devil. Suicide? Going to hell for sure for what she’d done, that’s not how the Lord plays b-ball in Heaven.

Burning. Spit on the ground. Margaret’s in hell, he said, and I slapped him. Father father. Terry. I left the church. Got in the Chrysler, drove to the cemetery. Complained and apologized to both headstones.

I should’ve taken ownership publicly, or at least to Francine. It was all my fault. It only dawned on me after the forensic pricks said with their magic wands that it was self-inflicted. Because, brother. And this is the hardest part, it was my gun. Margaret had asked to borrow it for an afternoon, to shoot a, a, a what exactly? A groundhog. I thought that’s what she had said. No, that wasn’t her choice of words. Varmint? I had joked, “Hungry Marge? Let me help you eat it.”

I put that secret with all my other secrets, it weighed me down in shame in the pit of my stomach. I filled my stomach with Kentucky kerosene.

 

The night of the poorly attended wake we stood around in the funeral parlor in our finest, and we shared memories of Margaret with each other and whoever was there to listen. 

Sadie showed for the second viewing. I didn’t say hi. And she didn’t say hi back. Then we smiled. We stood at the closed casket. Francine walked over. Sadie said, “Miss Margaret was the best teacher I ever had. She gave me a book for my birthday. She gave all the kids books for their birthday.”

“What book was it?”

“I think it was The Witches.” 

Sadie only stayed for a little while. Someone was coming over to fix the dishwasher, she finally told me. I told her I was jealous of the lucky repairman, and she said it wasn’t like that. When Sadie left, Francine wouldn’t stop asking questions about her. She was angry, thought Sadie was wrong about the book or had lied. Margaret was poor. She’d never given the kids birthday presents. And she certainly wouldn’t have given them Roald Dahl, any Roald Dahl, let alone The Witches. She was a Christian woman, no fan of sorcery, nor the “sluts of the devil,” as she called them. 

I told Francine that Sadie wasn’t all bad. But I admitted the bad things that we’d done together. Francine said that was none of her business. Francine said people had to do what made them feel good, even if it made them insufferable fools.

As we looked at the closed casket, Francine described how Margaret had first scrubbed the walls of the room in which she eventually killed herself, then mopped the floors, dusted, cleaned so well it would look like the room was ready for brain surgery. Which I guess it was, or the opposite of brain surgery. Brain demolition. Then Margaret painted the walls white again. Told Francine she could officially have her Cadillac. It’d been parked in the garage for years, mostly unused. Francine had a Kia, sometimes drove her mother around blasting gospel music.

The day of the suicide, she sent Francine to the store to get her ice cream, soup, celery, laundry detergent, garlic salt. While Francine was gone she put my gun to her head and surprised us all. Hornets too. And all the little old ladies were now worried about John Dillinger. 

Next to me in bed, one final time, because what else was was there to do in this town? Sadie said, “Imagine how embarrassing, to try and die and fudge it up, have to face the congregation. Or to be a vegetable. Mouth open, catching butterflies. Neighbors and friends seeing you that way for years.” 

“She must have been sick or something.” 

Sadie said, “Swallow that. That was a strong woman who knew what she wanted. God bless her. 78 years!” She was quiet for a moment, “But you’re right, aren’t you? Everybody is sicker than we know. You have no idea what private battle they endure.” 

Then Sadie asked how the old woman had gone about getting herself a pistol, and it all spilled out of me. I said, first the gun came from who-knows-where, you would have to ask Ricky Dunn. He had traded away an Igloo cooler that could hold fifty beers. Perfect thing for a boat, or for a hunting lodge, and most guys I knew had some kind of boat, or hunted, so it could be any one of them. When an unrelated warrant popped up for Ricky, he traded the gun to Kate Sickler for six haircuts, times two. One for each of his kids, with a haircut in the bank for each of them while he was away. He then went down to the jailhouse and turned himself in, but the cops were easy on him because he had so many mouths to feed, they didn’t even lock him up. The gun then came into my possession because I redid the tile in Kate Sickler’s downstairs bathroom, and I did a very bad job. I didn’t watch a single YouTube instructional video on tiles, and God knows, I should have. 

“A gun for bad tiling?” 

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I also gave Kate Sickler a little firewood in the trade, and I made love to her, which was gross and took a long time.”

Sadie shrieked with laughter, “You’ll just bone anybody, won’t ya?” 

“Got the gun and haircuts for a year, but, as you can see, I haven’t the guts to show my face to her again. Hair is getting long, long, long.” 

“At least something on you is long. Kate Sickler. Wow. The ugliest woman in town. Now don’t I feel good about myself. How does my thing feel compared to Kate Sickler’s? No, don’t say. I’ll off myself too.” 

“I don’t kiss and tell.” 

“Alec Durak, the bartering gigolo of Ocean County. Yeehaw.”

“I hung those signs up at Food Universe saying I was a handyman, jack of all trades. Some people interpreted that how they wanted, tightening a leaky pipe, or painting a fence.” 

“Is that what you’ve been doing? Painting my fence?” 

“Was to be my new career. I even went over to the gym and asked how much for a membership. Thought about working on my suntan, too. But for the best, Kate was my first and last customer.” 

“You can always go back.” 

“You can never, never, never,” I said. “Tell you what surprised me. That Second Amendment. How fond of it I felt when I was packing. Was glad I had that gun at a certain point. Slept easier. I don’t know how I went almost thirty years without one. Wish I still had it now, as a matter of fact. Carl almost being back, the snake eater, and all.” 

Sadie said, “Aw, Carl. You don’t have to worry about Carl. That boy is just the most gentle teddy bear. He’s the guy that does the combat paperwork or something. Must be. I’ve seen him worried to smoosh a spider.” 

“He probably knew it was bad luck. And I highly doubt they let you into the Quiet Professionals if you’re just a teddy bear who likes to do paperwork.” 

“The what?” 

“Is ‘what’ your favorite word? It must be. The Green Berets. The Bearded Bastards. The…the Special Forces. I must have my heart set on dyin’ if I’m making it with you and I can’t say it’s not worth it.” 

“That’s romantic, you saying that. Don’t say romantic things to me.” She hugged me under the covers, rolling over so her head was on my chest. I wasn’t used to tenderness. Wanted to run but I was pinned down gently. She said, “Somebody worries too much. Carl is the dumbest, most confident teddy bear around and I’m cold too, warm me up.” I played with her hair. She said, “But how did Miss Margaret get your gun?” 

I pointed over at my sock drawer. “For awhile it was in there, and then one day she called me on the phone and coaxed it out of me. She was going squirrel hunting in her own backyard, or some such thing.” 

“She never struck me as a hunter.” 

“People will always surprise us. Anyway, after it was all over, an IOU note showed up in my mailbox. She’d mailed it the day before. It said that I’d helped her out of a jam and she would see me on the other side. She said she loved me, it was all a personal decision, nothing to do with anything. Do you want to see the IOU? I can show it to you if you want.” 

“That I do not want.” 

“It’s worthless anyway. There’s no afterlife. There’s barely a life. How you gonna have an afterlife with no life? That’s just some scam they had going back in the day when everybody lived without running water, or electricity, and life was hard, harvesting wheat for some cruel king. Nowadays people have Netflix. They don’t want an afterlife. They want Chinese delivery and Carnival cruise line and a drug to erase their sore memories.”

She lifted her head off my chest. I sat up, checked and saw I was out of cigarettes again, so I put on my shirt, and worked my legs into a pair of jeans.

“Where you going?”

“Into the dirt, from the dust back to it, that’s all.”

“If you’re lucky, you’re wrong, and I guess you’ll have egg on your face when you get to Heaven. Do you want me to make you a drink? A goodbye drink? A farewell for real, no more fucky sucky, nice knowing you drink?”

“I don’t, no.” I stood up. “I don’t. No.”

And if I was in a coma I’d hope someone would be kind enough to me, to pour the beer in my mouth, hold my nose and aid me in swallowing it, light the cigarette and place it between my lips and then stand over me like a guardian angel, deal with the ash, while the husk of my imperfect body with the rare bird of the soul was glowing somewhere within me, perhaps perched on a rib, and the heart just a simple machine to move juice across 100,000 miles of blood vessels and the mind a TV flashing all of human history cluttered in inaccurate broadcasts and the sound off and the captions in hieroglyphics, but at least I would have my nurse, my caretaker, who would brush my hair from my forehead and give me another gulp of beer while the life support machine squealed and whistled and tolled bells like a slot machine finally paying out something. Now who would do this for me? Who would be my third mother? Who would watch over me now that my mother was dead again. Sadie? You’ll take care of me, won’t you? No, you never would. No, you never would. No, you never would. I couldn’t possibly take care of you either, now could I?

 

 


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.

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