Trey and I were walking to the liquor store to buy potatoes, three for a dollar, and a guy at the body shop yelled ‘Looking sexy, girl’ out of his greasy car window and Trey told him to fuck off and smiled real big at me. The sky looked real good and I told Trey I had been thinking about the sky a lot lately. Not in a scientific way or anything, just how grateful I am for it and how universal it is. How it’s always free and always different. Trey said that sounded like some hippie shit and smiled real big at me. On the corner, outside the liquor store, there was a man selling heroin and I cringed when he hollered his advertisement. He said he had sawbucks. Very Chicago. The phrasing never failed to make me think of a David Mamet play I’d read. We saw an old man walking slow and dizzy and Trey said he was doing ‘the crack rock shuffle.’ Trey knew about a lot of things I didn’t know about. We walked back from the liquor store with Marlboro Reds and three potatoes and energy drinks and some of those candy coated peanuts that are for some reason called Boston Baked Beans. I had a small crush on Trey but blamed it mostly on my caretaking spirit, maybe it’s because I’m a Cancer rising, I don’t know if I believe in that stuff anymore or anything. I just liked helping him.

 

That morning Trey had sent me a selfie where he had wet hair and looked real bad, out of the blue, with no text or context. I asked if he was okay. Ben and I had broken up two days before in a McDonald’s during breakfast and it felt like all I did was cry and take baths for those two days. Trey asked if I could call him an Uber to my place, this was way before Uber was deemed to be fascist or whatever they are considered now, this was more than a year ago, in late July. I called him an Uber and sent him a screenshot and told him to get outside. He did and I watched the car get closer on the app and I wondered why he looked so emaciated and I knew he’d been up for days taking big risks. I buzzed him in and saw him looking all scrawny and tired but still good. I took him to my room and we lay down and I think we both cried. He listened to me talk about Ben and Trey always did a good job of not doing that thing where you talk about yourself too much. Like when you tell someone you’re heartbroken and they talk about their own heartbreak, he never did that too much. He said he had no money, that he wanted to fly a sign in Wicker Park and that he didn’t think he had an apartment anymore and that he’d smashed up his guitar and that he was freaked. I said let’s go get some potatoes and I’ll fry ‘em up for us. I said ‘nice and starchy for our tum tums’ and he smiled and said he couldn’t eat probably but he needed to. I had put all my pills in a Nike drawstring bag and hidden them under some clothes in a laundry basket but not because I didn’t trust him just because I didn’t want him to be tempted. It was the second to last day in July and my lease ended on August first and no one had ever lay down in that bed with me except for Ben and I was okay that it was Trey doing it because I cared about him and his spirit, felt protective of him. 

 

A Voyeur

 

Mr. Adams was our seventh-grade woodshop teacher. He lived on the hill with his wife and two kids. He had a false eye and once showed us a video of himself riding a homemade hovercraft on the high school soccer field. He had a soft spot for girls and would always ask if they could help him clean up the classroom. Many did and asked for extra credit, and he gave it.

A guidance counsellor walked into our class after Christmas break and didn’t say anything about what happened to Mr. Adams. It’s not like he had to. Facebook was new, and everyone had already seen and shared the post. It happened the week before Christmas. At least that’s what people said. None of us were there. Most of us only saw his mugshot on the county bookings website and made up our own versions of what happened. Apparently, Mr. Adams had been looking into people’s windows and videotaping them naked. Or having sex. Or maybe it was little girls in their bathrooms. The only foundation validating the rumors was one word: voyeurism. I didn’t know the definition. My parents said a voyeur was a Peeping Tom. I imagined Mr. Adams climbing into a tree like George McFly and spying on someone with binoculars. Why would anyone do that?

When I came home, I got on Facebook, combed through the posts about Mr. Adams, and read all the comments. My crush commented on one of them. She said he was a pervert sicko and looked at her bare back when she bent to pick up trash in class. I clicked on her profile. We were friends, but we’d never talked and never would. I looked at all her pictures, framed in tiles on my screen. I could see everything.

 

He asked me if I made it home okay in such a caring, fatherly tone I got turned on. We met in a writing workshop. He critiqued one of my stories by saying, “You’re very good at individuating based on the desires of other people.” The night before, we got drunk together at a bar near a reading with a thrown together group of acquaintances, and now he was closing in on me in the corner kitchen of another reading inside someone’s Bushwick apartment. I told him, “Yeah, I got home fine” and not “I spent two hours walking around Brooklyn near-blackout last night alone, took blurry pictures of buildings on my phone, and then masturbated about you until I fell asleep at 6AM.” I noticed him staring at me as I walked back to my seat to watch the rest of the reading. When I left he texted me, Where did you go? I couldn’t believe it. 

 

I read Paradise by Donald Barthelme as an excuse to text him. Then I bought the Harold Brodkey book of short stories he recommended right after. The first edition hardcover with a ripped jacket was $7 at The Strand.

 

I’m a sucker for ‘Innocence.’ I read it as a kind of metaphor for the reader/writer relationship, he texted me.

 

I read the story immediately. It is explicit sex for 30 pages. It is hot. I overlooked the narrator’s misogyny and the laughably written female dialogue because I loved the weirdness of the prose. There are times the oral sex pushes past the point of consent. He wants to give his girlfriend her first orgasm and she’s afraid to have it. Right before she comes he says she’s Good

 

We met at the Family Forever Noodle House in Riverhead in 1983. Does the name ring a bell? Despite the suburban setting, in those days it was not actually a place for families, nor was it family-owned or owned by someone who had a family. A series of divorces and emancipations convinced the original owners to sell, and all communal feelings went with them. By our time it was the good-for-nothing sort of eatery, a shrug of a building, kept up without a semblance of pride, with walls once white turned gray-green from monthly fumigation. More ambitious and expanding establishments shouldered us from either side, and sometimes so aggressively I thought I could hear a voice behind the walls ordering others to push. I might have preferred to work in one of those places, with their handshakes and napkins and general rule of respect, but then who knows what that would have meant for me. 

I worked behind the counter, U-shaped, if you remember, with a cold metallic surface in which one could find their reflection, at least where it was clean and not dented from customers reminding us of their absent meals. There were twelve stools around the counter, and most were put together so poorly by Mr. Davies—the cross-eyed owner who knew nothing about noodles, knew nothing about any cuisine, as far as I could tell, and who never had a family and bought the place so he could ruin it for everybody that did—that they consistently tipped one way or another when someone sat down. One was drilled into the floor a foot and a half from the counter, and whoever sat there had to count on themselves to balance their meals. It also happened to be in the direct path of the restroom. Of course, this was all to Mr. Davies’ liking, and not only did he refuse the simple work of unscrewing the stool from the floor and bringing it in, he even laughed at those who sat there and threatened not to serve them. But enough about Mr. Davies, the cross-eyed owner who never had a family and still has none. 

 

“Can you describe a time when someone betrayed you?” This question is posed to me by Jan during a round of The Ungame, which I play over lunch with a group of colleagues in our architecture firm on the 92nd floor. The Ungame looks deceptively like Candy Land but is described, in its product materials, as a game without winners. Or losers. What is the narrative of this game? “To know one another,” apparently. “To create a story together of who we are, alone and apart.” I’m reminded of long adolescent evenings, with Stacey and Joe and Shane and Steph, slowly beginning to feel the idiosyncrasies of our tiny lives, how we gifted each detail to one another without knowing their value, and for the first time in years, I miss them. I think about the question. About who has betrayed me. But cannot think of anyone. Other than myself, of course. Ha. Am I lucky? I giggle and believe for a moment that I must be winning the game. The Ungame.

 

I open my mouth to share this revelation with my colleagues, but Jan interrupts, waving me aside and directing our attention out the floor-to-ceiling window, freshly cleaned and gleaming. “What is that,” she asks, pointing into the clear blue sky. We all turn to look, some swiveling in office chairs, others shifting to peer around shoulders. “I don’t see anything,” Eric squints, leaning forward. But it’s there. Unmistakably it is there. 

 

An airplane. Large. Suspended, sort of hovering, or just barely moving, some distance off from our building, waiting in the air, paused far above the Hudson. “It’s not moving,” someone states or asks.

 

Utterances of disbelief and questions of whether or not this is possible—a jumbo jet floating motionless in the sky—give way to alternate explanations. “It’s not an airplane, it’s a helicopter. See the rotors on top?” But it is an airplane, undeniably. We can make out the wings, just barely see the turbines, the long row of windows. “It’s an illusion, an advertisement,” someone offers. But it’s there, in 3D—patient, and not selling us a thing. “A blimp, a hoax, a conceptual art prank,” someone offers, or pleads really. This is the angle that gets the most traction, if only briefly: a joke, a gag. But even that explanation falls away when the news reports start rolling in, confirming our suspicions: a large passenger plane—a real one, with an origin and destination and ferrying actual passengers—floats immobile in the sky above the river, impossibly still, somewhere between New Jersey and Manhattan.

 

everybody always thinks i’m lying about this dream but i’m not: the dream is me standing next to a long pole that looks like those things on the boardwalk with the bell on top and the weight on the bottom and you have to bring the hammer down on the bottom part and depending on where you get the weight to go, you’ll know how strong you are. that’s what it looked like but instead of the words very weak, weak, strong, or very strong appearing up the pole, there were the words comedy, romance, adventure, drama. i knew i could choose which genre of dream i’d have and i’d get whatever i wanted. i couldn’t choose and i woke up. anyway. i’m not always lying. it’s just that…you know that phrase “he lies like he breathes”? it’s what people say about someone who lies a lot. you could maybe say i lie like i sneeze; there are just certain situations i’m allergic to. mom is one of those situations. out of the goodness of her heart she overwhelmed me. as a boy i was her buddy for every unnervingly tedious thing—i remember sitting with her at the dmv with a grocery bag in my lap while she haggled with our health insurance on her cell phone—these “activities” were the shape the love between us took, as vases, dog bowls, and beakers are to water. to this day the most romantic thing i can imagine is helping a woman move, taking apart her bed frame, waiting together for some maintenance guy to show up and do something. these things are related—in some way it doesn’t make any sense to say out loud. what i mostly remember isn’t anger that i was stuck with her or boredom at the objectively boring things we did. i remember being jealous. glowering at the valet when we went to the hospital for my physical therapy, the ache to strangle him when mom handed off her keys and fingered his palm; hating the fact we were “regulars” at the town diner, the smiley way the waiters already knew what to bring her (onion rings and russian dressing); and of course the boys at school. being aware of how people saw her was an entirely slimy thing. so i talked. to distract mom (and to distinguish myself) from the persistent idiots who wanted to take my place. and if you only talk to get what you want, sooner or later you’ll end up lying. you can only say so much as a kid before you see an adult escape into the sweet daydream of shooting themselves. even if the adult denies it (they will), it’s true. so, lying. for me it started small—feigned interest in her job, which turned out to be maddening, jealousy-wise, because she taught special ed and a lot of times she’d tell me as if it were a funny story that so-and-so “accidentally called me mom today” and i’d imitate some sort of kind son’s smile that i’d probably seen on tv while crushing a complementary cracker over my cup of diner soup. that agonized smile is the other bigger kind of lie. i don’t have to describe it because you’re probably doing it right now to someone you love, or someone you love is doing it to you. unlike the small lies which basically say i’m interested in the real you, the bigger ones do something darker which is say what a coincidence it just so happens that the real me is exactly who you want me to be. in those ways and for those reasons i lied to mom a lot. but to actually understand what happened with me and jasmine, it’s only important to tell you about the worst lie.

 

Tie a Tie

 

Russell cannot tie his tie and cannot accept that he cannot learn it, that this part of his brain is just gone. In the bathroom mirror, I watch his fingers fumble with the tie as the upturned scar on his forehead purples with tamped down rage. 

“Drape, wrap, repeat, push, pull through the loop,” he says. 

I respect Russell’s perseverance, that despite his traumatic brain injury Russell does not acquiesce into helplessness and rely on the assistance available to him, like some other residents tend to. 

But after so many Sundays, I must admit, I am not optimistic. After so many Sundays, I know that this episode only ends one way: with him asking for my help. 

“Russell,” I say, hoping to move things along. His half-sister hates when we’re late. “There’s plenty of stuff I can’t do, either. I can’t do calculus or knit sweaters. I can’t eat dairy products or peanuts or watch Christmas movies without crying. I can’t roller skate.” 

Russell ignores me. “Drape, wrap, repeat, push, pull through the loop.” 

 “I can’t think about the deep ocean without existential dread,” I say. “Or sleep without draping a heating pad over a pillow and pretending it is another human body. I can’t volunteer at the humane society.” 

 “Drape, wrap, repeat, push, pull through the loop.” 

And as Russell’s fingers fumble, I continue listing my shortcomings. I list them and the list grows long and painful. But I do not stop. I keep listing because I want Russell to understand that we are all deficient in some fashion.

 

In front of me, stands a man that looks exactly like I do. Behind me, is another man who looks exactly like myself. In fact, stretching before and behind me, as far as the eye can see, are men who bear the same identical features. The line moves slowly, excruciatingly so. Since we’ve been here we have inched forward only three times. Occasionally, other men who look like us pass by to ensure we remain as we are, in the line. They are armed and wear different clothing. We can hardly remember a day that has passed where we weren’t standing in this line, wondering what’s up ahead. It’s been so long that we’ve forgotten, likely all of us, what lies behind us, passing it so long ago. We must have passed something at one point, but all we can remember is the line. There must have been movement–a history–for we are where we are. All of us, I mean. But for the very life of me–of us–we can’t remember. But surely men are not born in a line. Are men born in a line? I shout. The me behind myself elbows me in the ribs, urging silence so as not to attract the guards. The me in front of myself glares at me, as if he’s somehow better than me. I open my mouth to respond but feel a firm hand on my shoulder. I turn around to see myself, dressed in olive fatigues and a face like ice. Ah I say, I could just–before I can finish, he raises the butt of the gun and drives it into our shoulder, bringing us to our knees. Shut up, I say to myself, then continue on down the line. I look up to my comrades in protest, but I–they–remain silent. I wonder if we were trained–I mean the guards. Probably not, I think. Probably just slapped a uniform on us. I’m fed up with standing in this bloody line. It is said that the lines in which we wait are vast and imperceptible at times. Excuse me, I ask myself (the one in front) but am elbowed in the ribs. Undeterred, I continue. Do you have any idea why we’re–I’m cut off by a more jarring blow now from the butt of my very own (man in uniform) rifle. The sky is so grey it’s hardly worth mentioning. 

Good Luck: Episode Fifty-Nine



My good memories and I were still in that house, hiding out behind the velvet curtains of the theatre where I’d gotten married. Any minute the doors would burst open and the last of my pleasant, fine, joyous memories would be slaughtered. 

I was trying to be quiet. We all were. Except four memories of my brother William kept forgetting, and were soon arguing too loudly about what was the best Final Fantasy video game. And my fathers were annoyed they were missing some important detective show on TV. And the many memories of my mother were taking turns holding a memory of an infant William, which wouldn’t stop fussing, crying out. My aunt Elaine had found some weapons to use in our defense, but they were just props. Foam swords for productions of Hamlet. I started to think I should walk out and abandon all my memories, good or bad, head back to the hospital. Check myself in. Start over. 

But then I heard engines. A great clamor. Machines rammed through doors and walls. Guns going off. Through the wall I heard a great stampede of bodies running and falling. And I looked at my few remaining good memories and told them to come out from behind the curtains, onstage, and out of the theatre. We better go, whatever was making their enemies run was good news for us.

We crept into the memory house proper. I saw the front door of the house had been ripped off its hinges. A great mass of bodies was seen running across the field. Four men on ATVs chased them down. Jean bib overalls, hunting caps, shotguns at their sides. The sun was just coming up. Everything was purple and gold.

I knew of these shotgun men. They’d come from Woodland, North Carolina. A town with a population of 800 people. The town’s lone police officer had quit, and then criminals had begun to rob gas stations and pharmacies and Sunday buffets. A vigilante squad formed. This vigilante squad. However it was they’d arrived here, I was thankful for them.

“I’m taking you all back with me,” I said. I led the survivors into the tunnel the grandmothers and invalids and children had used to escape. We walked through that narrow tunnel (lit up by the many memories of my father who each carried a pen light flashlight at all times). One of the memories of my brother, thirteen years old, made the comment that the men on ATVs–who’d come in at the last second and saved us all–reminded him of the giant eagles at the end of The Hobbit. “Okay, yeah sure,” I said. My brother William said, “You know, the ones who valiantly ended The Battle of the Five Armies, eradicated the army of goblins.” “Sure.” My other memory of my brother said, “Actually they were more like the Riders of Rohan at the end of The Two Towers.” And then they began to argue over the names of Tolkien’s eagles. “The mighty winged messengers of Manwë.” “Sure, messengers at first, but they became the guardians of all animal life, much as the Ents were the guardians of plant life.” “Great, eagles, that’s all that matters.” “They’re actually Buteoninae, not eagles. Closer to relatives of red-tailed hawks in species, just ginormous. Stupid big. Whoa.” “Gwaihir and Landroval, lords of the birds that saved Gandalf’s ass, how’s that?” I turned around and shouted at them to please be quiet. Thirty other memories clapped.

 

 

Pop-Tart Guy

 

 

Look I get Giving people their space.

Being respectful of communities you entering.

Not imposing.

But that don’t mean don’t engage.

Or it could mean: Not engaging, out of fear of committing the above, can be worse. More dehumanizing.

Like say you kicking it out back and homie pulls up, crouches, and hits the rocks feet from you. Other side of the fence but flagrantly visible. Adjacent to where kids be hooping. 

Is the move really Do nothing?  

To flat-out ignore him? 

Deny he exists?

Like Oh. That’s that dude. That’s what he do.

 

 

So call me crazy but when this happened one morning, what I did was, I went up to the back gate homie was crouched behind. Crouched. Went Bro, you good?

And when he ignored me: You got a spot to crash out?

And when he still ignored me: You need food or anything? A pop tart? I got pop tarts.

He lowered the pipe he was about to torch. Stood. Went Sure, I’d hit a pop tart. 

Yeah? I said. Sit tight!

When I came back with my last Brown Cinnamon Sugar, unopened in case he wanted to stash it, he looked at it. At me. Went It’s not toasted. You can’t toast it?

I started laughing. Bro you serious?

He shrugged.

Bro take your fucking pop tart.

Still feel bad about not toasting it.

 

I’d been watching prices on Car Guru for a few weeks. Waiting for used Fords to come down, waiting for dealers to put some up. Waiting and just looking at pictures of trucks while sitting on the toilet. That sort of thing. This was around when Linda called me and said her irrigation system wasn’t working. 

“All the plants are dying,” she told me over the phone. “The arbor vitae is crispy.”

Couple summers ago I rigged her this simple sprinkler setup that runs off her garden spigot. It snakes all around her yard with these tiny sprayers every five or so feet. Even hooked a battery timer to it so it’d run on its own. I told her she wouldn’t have to touch it. Ever. It’d just do its thing. Easy peasy.

Over the phone I asked her, “Is the system on?”

“Think so.” 

“Is the faucet handle turned all the way to the right or to the left?” 

“Oh I don’t know, let me go look.” She put the phone down and I heard her screen door slam. 

She was gone awhile. I got bored and started munching on some potato chips I didn’t know I had. Finally she came back and said “Left.” Some potato chips shards went down the wrong pipe and I started choking and coughing a bunch. I ran my mouth under the sink and took a big gulp of tap water.

“Are you dying?” Linda said. 

“Not yet.”

“Well, then get over here and fix my sprinklers.”

Budwulf

By Bud Smith

Short Story

Good Luck: Episode Fifty-Eight

translated from Old English by Frances B. Grummere & Bud Smith



LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings

of spear-armed New Jersey, in days long sped,

we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,

from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,

awing the earls. Since erst he lay

friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:

for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,

till before him the folk, both far and near,

who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,

gave him gifts: a good king he!

To him an heir was afterward born,

a son in his halls, whom heaven sent

to favor the folk, feeling their woe

that erst they had lacked an earl for leader

so long a while; the Lord endowed him,

the Wielder of Wonder, with world’s renown.

Famed was this Bud Smith: far flew the boast of him,

son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.

So becomes it a youth to quit him well

with his father’s friends, by fee and gift,

that to aid him, aged, in after days,

come warriors willing, should war draw nigh,

liegemen loyal: by lauded deeds

shall an earl have honor in every clan.

Arrows

By Bud Smith

Short Story

Good Luck: Episode Fifty-Seven

 

Now I will get to the battle part. I hope I tell it all right. I am not very good at writing action scenes. How are you at reading them?

Earlier this year, I was thinking about how I needed to try and write down this event in my life, and I was absolutely dreading it. I thought to read and study War and Peace to see how Tolstoy handled Napoleon and all his friends at Austerlitz, and the horses and the sabres and the cannon fire and all that, but I never got around to it. It’s probably fine. 

This battle had no horses, or sabres, or cannon fire. There was only one gun.

We had it. 

But we were outnumbered, ten to one. 

 

Will never forget the day dad talked over mom at a dinner party. That night she drugged him and split his tongue with a straight razor while my sister and I watched. “You see that, kids? Your father is a lizard now! You live in a terrarium!” 

 

When you give your mom a card and you watch her read it and well up and then the mist turns melancholic and severe as she looks through the table and into the past and assesses the present and you have to make a joke to break the spell. 

 

Hope Philip Roth’s mom is waiting for him, legs spread, in Heaven. 

 

I suggested to my mom that we do a family ayahuasca session for Christmas to which she replied, “My shit is together, isn’t it?” I said, “You are the master of your own shit. You tell me?” And she said, “Yeah, well it moves forward.”

 

When you die you go back into your mother and she goes back into her mother and so on until the nesting doll of existence repacks itself through primates and primordial goo all the way back up to the Big Bang.

 

Version 1 

 

This version of my husband moved out of his house and into me in the early 1990s. It was love at last sight. He was not the man I wanted but he was the man I got. 

 

My name in this version of events is Geraldine. My husband’s name at this point was Rex. I have never forgiven my parents for this name and if names were objects, then this one was a punchbag which all my bullies and not-well-wishers hammered with their bony knuckles. 

 

I was working in a bar. It was a small town with small people, and everyone’s faces looked like raked mashed potato. The men in the bar all had violently large bellies and sometimes I wondered if they were going to give birth to something, jettison some still-born clod of flesh and blood and oily hair onto the beer-sticky floor. 

 

And then there was my husband to be, Rex. He was stick thin and dressed in rags. 

 

“Hey,” he said. “I haven’t eaten in a year. Do you have any food?”

 

“We’ve run out,” I said. 

 

“Too bad, too bad. I can do without for a little longer, I guess.” 

 

Things moved quickly. Every man in this town was a piece of shit and a failure. I had been on several dates and the men would always dissect me like a frog. I remember being in that restaurant, Giovanni’s, and over a plate of mussels and spaghetti, my date, a piece of lard shaped like a man called Roger, cut my torso open and played my ribs like a xylophone. He also sawed the top of my skull off and wore it like a cap and poked the parts of my brain that would give him the secrets of my mind.  He asked me what I liked to do in my spare time and I said masturbate and chase rats. It was true. I liked to follow rats in the streets and count them. One, two, three, four and that’d be a good day for me, counting rats. But Roger, like many men, could look past my idiosyncrasies. I could’ve been a racist or a paedophile and he still would have swallowed his pride and fucked me. He took me back to his house, then, and he swallowed me whole and spat me back out. I was covered in his goo.