The Red Cloud

by Burt Barr

In the early morning in the first light there was a single thin cloud, a long red streak in an all clear sky. From my bed I watched the cloud move over the rooftops; it was traveling fast and keeping to a straight line. I thought it would tear apart before disappearing, but it held its shape until it was blown away, somewhere in the east.

I knew it was cold but I wanted to know just how cold it was. The phone recording said it was 16 degrees and that it would hit zero by night. I stared out the window, waiting for another cloud, but after a long time the sky was still clear. From the sound of the wind blowing across the top of the building, I was sure other clouds would come into view and I did not look away.

The heat was not on yet. Everything in the room looked hard, locked in place. Clothes on the chair had been there for days and some had been there since the fall when the weather was warm. The bookcase had not been touched in months; newspapers and magazines by the side of the bed looked yellow with age. There was not much else in the room: a bureau with a marble top, a lamp on each side of the bed, a built-in cabinet and a closet, and a mirror mounted on the wall. Nothing more. It was a room for summer with cream-colored walls and a light-wood floor.

I awoke in the dark, an hour before dawn. I was restless but chilled, and I did not want to get up and face the cold room. I reached for the phone and again dialed weather information to hear the report in full but after the temperature was announced, I hung up.

I could feel cool air on my face from the windows which were open at the top. Now that the weather had sharply turned, I would have to shut one all the way and partially close the other. I knew the cold spell had been coming; the phone reports had been consistent.

A great expanse of sky could be seen from the bedroom; when the air was filled with storms, this view reeled, but now nothing was there. The windows faced an airshaft and 30-odd feet on the other side was an old brick wall; it was faded, and in patches and cracks where moss grew in summer, it now looked frozen and dry. The wall was part of the building I was in, and above it was a parapet which blocked out most of the buildings across the street; only the rooftops of those buildings could be seen, and behind them, crowns of other facades.

From the roof I could have seen the other rooftops toward the east; they were lower, flat and black, and they continued for more than a mile, forming a long shadow above the street. While I could not see the red cloud moving over them, I knew where it had gone and that it would keep to a steady path. Clouds from the west went this way, heading out to sea.

The sky was a pale blue, its color drained by the city and the cold. There was not one more cloud, not one bird.

It was a six block walk for the newspaper but I did not feel well enough to go out. I could not get up. There was yesterday’s paper and although I had read it in the morning, and again at night to put me to sleep, perhaps there was one more article that could help start the day.

The sunlight began to glance off the parapet and by mid-morning it would come into the air shaft and through the windows. The heat was now on but I decided to stay in bed until the sun reached inside.

My eyes were sore and I felt tired and I could feel pressure around my ears and across my forehead and I said aloud, “Oh Christ, no, am I sick?” and I rubbed my stomach, and yes, it was sore and full, but I was not sure if I was sick or if I was still groggy and heavy with sleep and I looked for other reasons for my not being able to get up. The night before I was dizzy and it was a dizzy spell, for it lasted longer, many seconds (a minute?) instead of a momentary flash, and I had to sit down and wait until it passed. It had been over a month since I noticed any symptoms and I believed that I had recovered just in time, edging out winter by weeks. I did have the chills but the room was cold; I doubled the top cover, remembering that I had been awake in the night, searching for a blanket.

In the night I remembered looking for the dog. She was not in her usual place and I walked from room to room whistling. She is a mongrel, old and lame, a dog one would find in another country, crossing a road in a poor village, limping in the dust. She is close to being stone-deaf, but still I whistle. I found her curled-up next to a radiator, the white of one eye visible, and I thought of the winter, of the cold, of a dog aching and old and I wanted her to come into the bedroom and sleep with me there but I did not wake her.

In the winter before and into the spring I thought what I had was a lingering flu that would pass one day. At the start of summer I found another doctor, and retracing the symptoms, I learned I had been sick for years.

The cold months were far away when the weather was warm and throughout that time, if one cure did not work, another would. In the summer I lay down for days at a time, a head full of dope, fresh fruit and cool drinks by my side, always with something to read. In the heat of summer, the air moist, sitting up and waiting for a bead of sweat to drip from my face to the floor, trying to form a puddle, waiting for one more drop, and another, then on my back, flat, and sleep coming fast. On a cot in a tent where I roll in fever, a thick fog out there and now the rain—Jesus, is it heavy—coming down through the broadleaf trees, the earth sweet and steaming, flowers everywhere, and where brilliant birds screech through the trees, their throats shuddering. Animals thudding by, especially those anteaters in the night, their tongues long like worms—all floating past the screen flap of the tent—and in the distance, the sound of the river plunging down, cascading over the rocks. Every day it rained in the late afternoon, then suddenly it was evening and the nights were cool.

It was during that time that I sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” over and over, and while I did not get the words right, I could not stop, and through the summer I burst into song, filled with glory. O Panama. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel better and will go to the river and swim, above the falls where the water is clear. When I return, I will wear (for the first time) the linen pants she left for me before she went away, and of course a crisp shirt, of course white, and I will wear the canvas shoes (also for the first time) that I bought in the city. And I will think of returning to the city, but first I will walk along the grassy paths to see if I am not riddled with gas or overcome by dizziness. If all goes well, I will head to the road and walk there.

So, then. Monday morning in New York City, freezing, and the traffic, usually loud moving downtown, sounds like a low lying rush snaking through the streets, brushing against the buildings. The horns are muted and far away. My stomach is swollen and I can’t stop belching. The room is cold and I know now, that it is not the reason for my having the chills.

Winds out of the west, northwest. Clear skies across the nation. A plane went by, high and far in the distance. I saw a vapor trail, then followed it to the plane, its silver body lit by the sun. The plane was high, flying parallel to the coast, flying to the southern tip of the world. It glinted in the sun, then it was gone. A dead cold sky, air like ice.

At a dinner nights ago at a friend’s house with others, my stomach rose like a beachball in the sun. I wanted to leave soon after eating but I stayed until late in the night. The streets were quiet and cold, and in seconds I had a headache that throbbed and flashed like a strobe. I stood in one spot while the others looked for a cab; I did not move.

Monday morning with everything out of reach. A radio plays on the floor below but I cannot hear the words, the broadcast breaking and fading and I am not certain if it is a radio or a memory or a voice one hears from another time and lay still and strain to hear but it is gone. Then it did come back but it was delicate and again I remained rigid for a long time trying to hear, and it was a radio from downstairs and I held onto the voice but was not sure if it was a man speaking or a woman and I never knew what was said.

On the other side in the adjacent apartment, a woman vacuums. It is a pleasant sound, cushioned, and I can’t tell if she is coming closer or going away. I don’t know when I first heard it, it seems like it was always there, but now it does grow faint until I am no longer sure if it is there.

During the night I heard talking followed by laughter, this rhythm continuing until I fell into a broken sleep, awaking now and again to the murmurings. There were two people and they may have been on the floor below, or next to me where she vacuums, or maybe it came from the building across the airshaft. Someone had a visitor in the night and their voices were soft and their laughter was soft and I never knew where it came from.

Now—the cloud was red. It was caught by a rising sun in a cold and empty sky. It was a raw color, a cheap red like that of a cartoon strip. And its shape: it was long and thin and it was moving fast on a flat plane, as flat as paper. From where I lay, it appeared that it was 15 feet long, a rectangle and somewhat twisted. I was wide awake when it went by and I was surprised to see it and it was a long time before I went back to sleep but whenever I awoke I thought of the cloud.

Not like American clouds of summer days, drifting, billowing bright, and blinding. They lumber over the landscape, moving along the horizon, pure white against a blue sky—the colors alone a cause for celebration. The colors alone—reason enough to grab a rifle, saddle-up and ride hard into the hill country right straight onto the Montana line. They heard the shootin clear cross the valley. It went on all that day. . .a good thing too. These clouds never cast a shadow and they move in silence to the sea where they also disappear. It will be months, forever, before they return.

She vacuums more in the winter. It was soothing when she began, a hum on the floor, but now she is bumping the baseboard and going fast. She is behind the bed. I hope she dies soon.

A deep blue shadow draped itself over the top of the brick wall. The sky was gray, grainy. The buildings across the way lost their outline and I stared through the dusk trying to find the detail. The parapet sank into the gloom but its broken ledge still was sharp against the sky.

Sirens sounded far off in the city, probably a fire in the Avenues, A B C D, all the way to Z for fuck’s sake. The buildings here are solid, this one of iron, but to the east they’re of brick and in the Avenues they’re crumbling. By now, they are burning.

It was dark when I got out of bed. I took the dog up the back stairs to the roof. I stood inside the bulkhead, waiting out of the wind. She came in fast.

When we got downstairs, I could smell toast rising from the floor below. I looked for the bread; I looked in the freezer. I looked again but there was no bread. The smell of toast grew stronger, filling the room—it was all I could think about.

It was 5:00 PM, the first week of January, 1982. It was seven degrees and there was no food in the house.

Tags:
Short stories
Downtown New York
BOMB 8
Winter 1983
The cover of BOMB 8
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