Black as Your Lungs, Black as Pitch

First-Place Winner

Black as Your Lungs, Black as Pitch
Illustration by Peat Duggins

Crackling sausages, scrambling eggs. A baby making cry or laugh sounds on the couch. I woke up as the smell and sounds seeped into my room. When I opened the door into the living area, the air hit my face warm and heavy. Eggs, sausages, biscuits, gravy. Coffee. Bourbon. Cigarette smoke. I could have eaten the air between my room and the kitchen.

You look hungry. And stupid, she said. She had a key, she let herself in as she pleased. Her baby, as it turns out, was laughing on the couch, putting a bright red cigarette lighter in its mouth.

She would smoke in my house with impunity. I smoked, too, but never in the house. I would always go stand outside and kick at the concrete and look up while I smoked. Even if it was frozen and snowing out.

It was still fall, so it was brisk, but not too cold. I went out and had a cigarette, turning on the stereo on my way to the door.

I want to send you packin'

When you treat me this bad

But I can't fire the best damn

Cook I've ever had.

She used to be one of the bartenders at my regular place before she had a baby. She was used to smoking inside. She wore silver-hoop earrings, which made my eyelids pulse a little whenever I saw little bits of light reflecting off them.

She ate a biscuit, dry, then lit up sitting on the couch in the middle of the living room, pretending her baby wasn't there.

I still had a job. I ate the shit out of those biscuits and gravy. I never smoked inside.

I smoked the back porch, I ashed onto the dry lawn. I put all the butts and ashes she tipped into a cereal bowl or a drinking glass into a trashcan lined with a thick, black plastic bag.

Do you believe in ghosts?

Not really, I said. I sort of believe in angels, but I think they're probably fucking terrifying.

I believe in ghosts. She took a drag from her cigarette. They're the ones who convince you to do dumb shit. They tell you to smoke, tell you to try to get across the train tracks before that train comes. They say you can make it, you can make it, go. She hunched over a little as she whispered this.

You mean they want you to die?

No. They want you to be dead. They're lonely. So they tell you to walk down the street instead of the sidewalk, tell you to take a swim in an electrical storm.

I was working, checking grain for a rail company. I would drive my old truck between Wichita Falls and Scotland, then over to Archer City and up to Electra. This long pole I got from my boss measured the depth of the store of grain in the railcar. I'd climb up the ladder at the end of the car and dip the pole down into the grain, whatever type it was, and measure how much was in there by turning a knob at the end and listening to the grain patter down into the hollow.

The rails always run straight to the grain elevator, so even the first time I drove to a town like Electra, I knew exactly where my work was. I'd just look for the big slip-formed concrete silos or the corrugated steel hoppers sticking up from the plains.

Fridays I would go to Sorry Murphy's and sit at the bar and drink pints of stout and pretend I was smart. I had a college degree.

The first night she worked I sat there all night, talking bullshit with my friends who were still in college, staring at her ass when she turned around to pull a beer or bent over to change a keg.

At 1:45 she kicked me out of the bar. My friend Mulkey was plowed under from taking some pills earlier and chasing them down with ten cans of Schlitz. He was in a chair near the door, so I wasn't worried about him.

She was wearing those silver-hoop earrings. I thought she was the devil. The foul overhead lights came on.

Are you the devil? I said.

I wanted to meet her in the woods. She threatened to put her boot up my ass. She told me to get off of that barstool and go home.

I was always starting something, some new hobby.

The ceramic studio at Midwestern State was available to recent grads, so I went up there and rolled some clay and made pots to give away as Christmas presents. I always planned ahead for things like that. I made her an ashtray.

Next time I went to the bar, I brought it along.

Could I have a stout? I said as I pulled up a stool.

Sure, she said.

I tapped my thumbs on the bar. She knew just how to pull a stout. How to wait a while after half of it was in the glass, then wait again when it was full for it to settle before handing it to me. She didn't bother with the shamrock swirl in the foam.

I made you this, I said and pulled the little ashtray out of my jacket pocket and put it down on the shiny wooden bar. It was hard-fired and glazed with greenish-blue.

She tipped some ash into it.

Thanks. That's real sweet. She went back to her work.

Sometimes on Saturdays I would go out and park at the little rail depot where I checked the grain in Electra. I'd bring a pint of bourbon and I'd climb up into one of the railcars. I'd sit, sink down in a few feet of maize and drink and listen to my handheld radio, listen to the Sooners game or the classical music station from Wichita Falls.

I preferred maize to corn or wheat or sorghum, which got sticky.

The cows in the field next to the depot would eat grain from the car out of my hand, but they didn't look up from their grazing when I cursed or cheered or sang songs.

Calves in the cornfield, cows in the shed

Steers in the headlights, heifers in my bed

Occasionally I'd take this rosary I found at the thrift store and sit there in the maize and finger the beads and say what I knew of the prayers as the sun skidded low into devious angles. I didn't know much of them. Hail Mary, full of grace, something something. I counted the beads and took long pulls from a bottle of cheap whiskey. Glory be.

She knew I didn't smoke inside, saw me a hundred times open the sliding glass door and walk out to the porch and lean against the railing and kick the concrete and smoke and look up.

I'd drop an ashtray on the coffee table and bump my knee into hers like it was accidental. She didn't seem to notice.

One time she came over and brought the ashtray I made in the ceramics studio and set it down on the table. She put her gum in it, a neon green wad, and then lit a cigarette and ashed onto the carpet. She didn't take the ashtray with her when she left.

I thought maybe we could go out to the silos in Electra, hang out, drink some bourbon, watch the cows.

Why? You wanna check my grain?


Okay. She spit out her gum. Who's going to watch the kid?

We can take him over to Mulkey's, or to Lockhart's place at the rectory. Mulkey owes me a favor, and he has reliable electricity.

At the Electra grain elevator, the top of one of the hoppers was off for repair. It was dry enough they could keep grain in it without worrying about rain or anything.

We climbed up the ladder quietly. I lodged each rung of the ladder in between the heel and sole of my boot. She climbed more quietly, with her toes. I was hoping for maize, but there was feed corn in the open hopper.

We hoisted ourselves over the lip and settled down into the corn. I opened the bottle of whiskey, took a big pull, and offered it to her.

The stars were out, and we could lie back in the corn and feel submerged, weighed down by it comfortably. I looked up out of the edges of the silo at the sky and felt like I was in it, waiting at the depot with the ghosts and the terrifying angels.

We sat like that for a while in silence. Finally she looked over at me and said, Why don't you want to do it with me?

You know. I paused.

You know, I'd love to put my right hand down your blue jeans and my left hand up your shirt. Right now I would. I paused again.

Right now I'd like to. I'd fuck the shit out of you. I really would.

I breathed heavily, the corn dust getting into my nostrils and my eyes. I started to tear up. I really would, I said and sneezed.

I imagined her baby eating cigarette butts out of the ashtray I made.

I really would.

That's not an answer, she said staring at the sky.

I just can't.

It was quiet again for a minute.

Can I have a light? She asked, trying to change the tone of the conversation. I started digging in my pockets to find the lighter.

Then abruptly she said, You're a faggot, aren't you?


Yes you are, she said. Faggot.

You've never met a real gentleman before. I found the lighter in my pocket.

There aren't any gentlemen anymore. Only faggots.

I leaned at her like I was going to light her cigarette but threw the lighter over the edge of the hopper. It hit the hard-packed dirt with a faint clack.

Your heart is black as your lungs, black as pitch. I started swimming through the corn to the edge to get out. I hope the ghosts give you some real good advice soon.

I pulled myself over and planted my feet on the circular platform that skirted the lip of the hopper. I patted my jeans and jacket, brushing away the dust that covered me. I sneezed.

Real people don't really talk that way, she said.

They do now. Or I'm not real people, which is possible. Fucking bitch. Is that how real people talk?

I sneezed again and the bottle of whiskey fell out of my jacket pocket and rang against the platform, then shattered against one of the bottom rungs of the ladder, sprinkling what was left of it on the ground.

Bless you, she said.

Fuck you.

She sat still in the grain and said nothing as I climbed down the ladder and got into my truck. I thought maybe I heard her singing before I started the engine and pointed the wheel toward my place in Scotland.

I found out about the silo explosion, the flour bomb, when I showed up the next day to check grain at the depot. I had stayed up late drinking stout at the bar, then more bourbon in my backyard. I slept the whole next day, didn't hear the radio or news or anything.

I woke up at about ten at night and got my measuring pole and drove first to the little depot closest to my house in Scotland, then over to Archer City.

I took the slow, diagonal road from there to Electra instead of going into Wichita Falls first, wondering how she got home, hoping maybe I'd see her on the road, still hitchhiking to get back to Wichita Falls. I wanted my lighter back. I wanted to meet her in the woods.

When I got there, the hoppers were solid gone, rubble. It was nearly two in the morning, and it was real dark, but I could tell by the moonlight that there was layer of black ash and char that had settled over everything in the vicinity.

Jesus holy fuck.

My hands shook, but I still grabbed my flashlight and my measuring pole and walked tentatively over to the railcars. They too were covered in the char, black dust from the explosion. The stores of feed maize and feed corn were ruined. The cows in the next field stood perfectly still, sleeping on their feet.

Combustible grain dust suspended in air

Makes a real bad bomb if a spark is there

The ghosts must have told her to go get the lighter and then climb back up in the silo to sit and look at the stars and have a smoke.

The summer before I had decided I was going to take up gardening, grow my own and all that. So I had dug a square hole in my back yard about two feet deep and long enough for a pine box.

Not long after I dug the hole I moved on from the gardening thing, onto the next big idea, pottery or something. I was always quitting something.

The hole sat empty in the yard. Maybe I'll raku, I thought.

The truck clicked and gasped in the oncoming cold, but finally turned over. I drove from Electra into Wichita Falls to Mulkey's house. I parked the truck in his yard, left the driver's side door open so I wouldn't wake anyone by slamming it shut, and quietly opened the front door.

The baby was sleeping soundly in the little playpen we had set up for him before leaving for the elevator. He appeared to be clean and fully fed. Mulkey was fast asleep on the couch with his mouth hanging open, his long, tangled hair across his face, an empty bottle of caffeine-free coke in his hand.

Quietly I pulled open a drawer in the kitchen and found a little, unmarked bottle of pink pills. I took a can of coke from the fridge and went back out the front door.

When I got home, I found the ash can next to the broken dryer on the back porch. I took off the lid and carried the can out to the yard and poured all the months' worth of ashes and butts from it evenly into the floor of the abandoned gardening hole.

I took off my clothes and lied down in it, in the hole, in the ashes and the rank fiberglass filters. I watched the sky. The cold front came on.

It was less than an hour till sunrise. There was no breeze. The ashes smelled like hell, burned my nostrils. A few birds chattered with the faint brightening, but their clackings were the only sounds.

The sky turned from black to purple. The stars faded. The sky turned pink, turned yellow. Then blue.

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