The Blackest Lungs of Virginia
Gregory T. Janetka
The bar was blacker than the inside of a chain smoker's lung and I coughed out of sympathy while Eddie grabbed a bottle of whiskey. They showed us one in school, one of those lungs, I mean. They had it in some sort of solution that looked like my grandmother's pickle brine. They showed us pictures of a healthy lung then pulled this sucker out of the brine, put it in a plastic tub and sliced it open right there in front of us. It was bad all right but what got me was the smell—an acrid wave that hit your glass jaw and swirled in a cloud above your head. I'd never smelled anything as foul—the smell of something that should be rotting but isn't—worse than the rotting itself. Yeah, it worked. I've never smoked a cigarette—not 'cause of how that lung looked, vile as it was, but that smell, that smell man, that's what did it for me. All those pictures of healthy lungs—their owners were as dead as the owner of the black lungs so what's the point?
Eddie was already into his second slug by the time I got that smell out of my head and downed a shot myself. Maybe my liver would be in that brine, in a class someday, it laying there, bathing, shriveled and covered in fatty deposits and some kid wouldn't drink booze for as long as he lives. But he'd smoke, or race motorcycles, or do unspeakable acts with prostitutes, or sit in front of a TV for 80 years—there's no escaping ourselves but we keep inventing new ways to try. Or at least we convince ourselves we do. Truth is they're as old as the human race.
Eddie and I had run out of ways, that's why we were here, in this strange city, in this strange state—the only one to have another state secede from it—drinking this shitty whiskey that we could've gotten back home. Maybe we weren't clever enough. I used to pride myself on that, being clever I mean. It got me through the war alive and somewhere I lost it, or it ran out. Maybe they only doled out so much and no one warned me to ration it and that shit was gone now, man, and it wasn't coming back.
“Ugh,” Eddie grunted. That was about as clever as he ever got. He must've blown all of his escaping from his crib. Yeah, a Houdini he must've been, devising escape methods within escape methods. Then he got out of diapers and it was gone man, and it was never coming back. He blew his allotment and then some. But I liked him. Who the hell else would put up with me anymore?
Estelle finally had enough and I couldn't blame her. I was a mess. I was always a mess but I stopped making promises that someday I'd stop being a mess and that's what did it, you know, that ideal future she could dream of where she could prove her mother wrong and we'd show 'em all. I knew the truth but those promises, those empty hollow things, they tickled me and they kept her coming back. I used to be a good-looking guy, when I was a kid, you know? Estelle, she was a beauty—still is damn her—and I love her to death but she is one shallow broad, you know? All I had goin' for me was my looks. And once you use them up they're gone kiddo, and they ain't never comin' back.
I took another drink and fingered the oil lamp on the table. The place smelled of bacon but the closest thing to a kitchen was a hotplate on the corner of the bar that hadn't been used for years. No doubt the walls would taste salty if one dared to lick them, like dried fish skins.
“What are we doing here, Charlie?”
“Drinking. What's it look like? This place look like it's good for anything else? This land, it laid barren for years, Eddie, years. Nothing would grow on it and you know why? Because this is all it's good for and some guy came along and realized that and he put down the floor and threw up some walls and a roof and voilà, there you go. We all got our purposes, land the same as people. Hell, it is people. You know how many bodies are in this earth under us?”
“No,” Eddie said, stupidly.
“Millions,” I said. “Hell the whole thing, the whole earth is nothing but compacted bodies—humans, rats, dinosaurs, saints, sinners—they're all there and when they've been there long enough we extract 'em and put 'em in our gas tanks and we drive on them. We drive on them Eddie, and once they're used up and gone they're gone and some day we'll be fuel, and the more we drink the sooner that'll be.”
Eddie thought about that and then said, “I don't know if you're the smartest guy I know or the biggest ass.”
I couldn't disagree with either.
“We all got our things to be Eddie, we all got our things to be.”
Holding my hand over the flame of the lamp to see if there was any feeling left, I put down another shot and noticed the bartender watching us, sideways like. He had those garters on his arms like it was the gold rush or something, and his hair was slicked back. Maybe it came from the castor oil his mother shoved down his throat as a child. Poor woman, if she could see him now. But she can't, she's busy being turned into fuel. Make it go woman, we gotta drive on.
“Eddie, what do you have left?”
“Only thing I had was that five bucks, I told you that.”
“Right, right. And this guy's got an itchy finger and we'll be dead before we try to run,” I said, motioning towards the bar. “Where is everyone, anyway? The rest of this town got better things to do on a Saturday night than drink?”
I tried to pick up the oil lamp to look into the flame but it was fused to the table. The bastards had nailed it on.
“We gonna run for it, Charlie?”
“We'll finish the bottle, it's the gentlemanly thing to do. If we run now this here thing of beauty might break and Charlie Riley does not let a bottle die an untimely death. Even one that had the unfortunate luck of being filled with this fourth-rate swill. The vessel seldom represents the contents accurately, remember that Eddie.”
“Got it,” he said, making a clicking noise with his mouth as he twisted his index finger into the side of his head like a key.
So we kept drinking and took our time about it. I coulda killed for a jukebox. The only sound in the place was the dying cries of flies stuck on flypaper, the sound of decay. The gartered man glanced and glanced some more but didn't make a move. He must've polished every glass in the place a dozen times over. No one else came into this godforsaken tract of land.
A woman, however, materialized from the darkness. I thought maybe she was a spirit then I saw the swinging curtain—a back room that I hadn't noticed before. Built like a refrigerator with arms two sizes too small stuck on the sides, she lumbered up to the bar and the bartender cocked his head in our direction and I'd be damned if she didn't make eyes at us—you know, the look of a woman who hasn't been touched in years. It was clear what had to happen—Eddie'd service her and we'd get the hell outta here.
God bless his simple mind.
“I'm still married, I couldn't do that to Estelle, you know that,” I told him in honeyed tones. “I love that woman and she'll be back but if I do this she'll never come back. She'll know, the universe'll tell her. It's a woman you know, the universe. It always tells 'em.”
“I guess she ain't that bad,” Eddie said into the end of the bottle.
“Not at all, maybe you'll even like it. Who know what those hands can do.”
“We're gonna find out,” Eddie said, wiping his mouth on his forearm.
“Vaya con dios, my friend,” I said, clapping him on the back.
The gartered man crossed his arms as the refrigerator woman took Eddie back into her lair and I tossed a wad of bubble gum in my mouth—I told you, smoking's for chumps.
“The flag is just a rag...” I sang into the darkness. “The flag is just a goddamned rag...”
I thought of walking out, of pinning this on Eddie and sticking him with the consequences—I'd stuck him for worse before, and he kept coming back, like we all do, preferring the shitty existence he knew to the shitty existence he didn't. But no, I had to see this, see if he had any cleverness to get outta this, to survive this, you know? Not the body but the mind, you know? How much could that peanut brain take?
I spit out the gum and washed my mouth with booze, letting it soak into the cuts, the sores, all those spots worn down by dime store coffee and tinned meals. I felt it, you know, that pain, it was like a trusty old friend you could count on, like how Eddie saw me.
And then he came outta that den, pushing aside the dingy curtain and ducking to get out, to keep from hitting that melon of his. The only thing I could see behind him was the end of a lit cigarette and a smoke trail that clung to him for dear life. With each step his shoes stuck to godknowswhat on the floor and his shirt sleeves were rolled up, jacket folded over his arm, sweat raining down his face like a hot Tennessee night.
“How'd it go big guy?”
Starring ahead with glossy eyes, he uncorked the bottle and took a drink that he never came back from and neither did I.
He killed the bottle. As he brought it down hard on the table I watched the flame jump, it was the only sign of life in the place. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun being cocked. That sound always makes the buckshot that's still in my backside throb—sure, I could feel each bit of lead, but I could also taste the peaches we'd stole from old man Hughes' orchard. Every sweet drop of them rolled over my tongue and ran out the corners of my mouth. Preparing myself for another volley of buckshot I swallowed and turned to look at the gartered man, but he hadn't moved. He stood in that same spot, polishing those glasses. He didn't do anything but polish those damn glasses.
The woman stepped out then. Save for the long black cigarette holder that was fused to her hand, she stood as unadorned as the day she came into this world. I followed her eyes to the front door, which was propped open with Volume 17 of the Encyclopedia Britannica, holding within it the details of Lord Chamberlain through Mecklenburg. Her eyes then met mine and she shook her head. So this was it then, our cleverness had run out for good.
No one else would come into this godforsaken tract of land and we'd never leave.
“It was good while it lasted,” I said. “At least it was good while it lasted, wasn't it, Eddie?”
About the Author: Gregory T. Janetka is a writer from Chicago who currently lives in San Diego. His work has been featured in The Birch Gang Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Gambling the Aisle and other publications. He drinks a great deal of tea. More of his writings can be found at here.