Ventilator Blues

Ventilator Blues

by Daniel Bartkowiak

Ventilator Blues

Beyond the tracks and rising erumpent from the swallows of the Mississippi are two Maple trees which he watches alone and with a face not older than the trees but one of a similar mold. He pulls out a red lighter and a pack of Lucky Strikes from his leather jacket. He spins the wheel twice before the flame emerges, an orange haze in the gray evening.

The other passengers linger by the tracks, smoking and speaking in lowly voices.

“World’s supposed to end tomorrow.”

“What’s it this time?”

His father smoked Lucky Strikes.

“Asteroid, I think.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad.”

Steam rolls from beneath the train’s grates. He flicks away the dying cigarette and prays like he has for many years on nights like this, the sky above gray, depthless, the sun a cold white globe, prays for his son, wherever he may be, prays for his heart, however long it may endure, and at the conclusion of his prayer he asks not for wealth nor for his soul’s preservation, but for the Lord to get him home safely.

Lumbering to the stairs, his eyes sunken and shriveled, he nods to the engineer.

“Any chance we make it?” he asks.

“Not unless God picks us up and places us there. And I’m afraid He’s got bigger problems.”

“You ain’t wrong,” he says. “No sir, you ain’t.”

The train grinds ahead. He falls into his seat and opens his Bible, an orange cover and shimmering pages. Dim yellow bulbs line the aisle. Looking out the window it’s as though a black cloth has been draped over the entirety of the night. He soon gives up trying to read the blurred lines, his gnarled fingers gently gracing over the words as if they were brail.

By the time the train burrows under the cement awning at Union Station, the other trains in the yard rest dark and deserted and to some of the wearier eyes like things not in waiting but decommissioned. An issue pipes out the speakers regarding sleeping accommodations. He says nothing to anyone while descending the stairs.

Framed by the star-hung sky the buildings radiate in a heavenly glow. Pockets of cool air rise from below the Jackson street bridge. He sits on a bench outside the station and while staring up at the buildings, coughs and spits and lights a cigarette.

The red and white blinking of antennas high above.

From the bench he watches a dark figure slowly traverse the bridge, the water below silver and silent. His own face flickers as he periodically strikes the lighter’s wheel. He thinks about the first time his father ever took him out on a boat and the way the leaves, yellow and crisp, slipped off the evergreen branches down to the lake’s surface where they touched calmly, quietly, floating with their callused shapes still intact, and as the dark figure approaches the pale arc of light emanating from the lamp above he thinks that day to be the day all others are judged against.

“Any chance I get a smoke?”

“A man who doesn’t lend a smoke ain’t a man to begin with.”

The figure stands, his face shielded by his hood. “Is that a yes?”

Aaron holds out a cigarette and lighter then motions over the bench’s empty seat. The stranger accepts these yet stands a moment longer before sitting. He sparks the lighter and puffs a thin stream of smoke.

“Smokes be expensive, man or no man,” says the stranger. “I thank you.”

Aaron nods then turns away. He says nothing of the stranger’s roan tooth which protrudes out his mouth like a hardened clump of dirt. “It’s damn hard to be anything these days.”

“I hear you now,” murmurs the stranger. “Like everyone moving two steps too fast.”

And the day to which all others are to be judged against, he thinks, falls short itself when judged against the boy. The boy and Butch and the house below the mountains and all those days where it wasn’t so much my own will getting up but God’s pushing me ahead, just like he sat this man down, just like he sits every man down at some time or another.

“Ain’t even like I’m asking for much. A few quarters, dollar, maybe. And what do they do? Just walk right by,” says the stranger. “What you think of that?”

“What do I think of what?”

The roan tooth reflects no light. “Bout people moving too fast.”

“Like in cars? Butch says always stay within five of the limit. Anything more and you’re asking for a ticket.”

The stranger turns and looks at Aaron, the gray hair flowing out from beneath the red cap, the skin wrinkled and pocked, discolorations so many it’s as if he were enshrouded in ash.

“Is Butch a friend?”

“My dog is a friend. Butch is damn near a God.”

Smoke leaks out his mouth. “Don’t mean this no bad way, sir, had a son who was well, like that. If you know what I mean.” He taps the cigarette against the bench. “I just ain’t want you thinking that me sitting here is more than me sitting, is all.”

Aaron watches the yellow rectangles of light. The mechanical station doors whir and hum. “A son, is that right?”

“By blood only.”

A siren wails to the east. Aaron’s lips hold an unlit cigarette. “Butch says you can’t ever be too far. Not with someone who’s got the same blood.”

The stranger doesn’t nod, nor does he speak. A car thuds over the bridge, headlights like white eyes scanning the nameless dark. When his stomach begins to groan, he addresses Aaron with a face tired and strained.

“Damn hard to be anything,” he says.

And how to make sense of the city’s anonymous noises, the invisible ringing, the distant chatter, voices and motors and empty beer cans crushed beneath rubber tires?

Aaron considers the windows as square by square they slowly blacken, each one reminding him of that window many miles south that for all those years he’d hope to find illuminated while climbing the hunchbacked hill.

“I hate to ask this,” murmurs the stranger, stopping once noticing Aaron has left the bench and begun wandering towards the railing that bars off the steep fall into the silver and motionless river.

“No no if it’s in the blood it can’t be too far.”

The stranger rises as Aaron turns towards the station, the face no longer ancient but possessed, distant, a whiteness filtering out between the eye’s narrow slits. His head tilts sideways and briefly they’re staring at each other in the night’s blue light.

“Father said that we are of few days and full of trouble.”

“Mister?”

Only the moment has passed. Aaron sets off towards the station doors. Either another siren has emerged or it’s the same one from earlier still blaring, whining, crying, and the stranger watches as halfway to the doors Aaron stops, stretches out his arms, his hands reaching, grasping, and dropping his head once more stares up at the sky reddened by the city’s lights.

“Yessir, I can hear you now,” he calls. “I have the blood and I can hear you now.”

“Mister, is this yours?” yells the stranger, holding the Bible’s orange cover.

Aaron’s fixation parts with the starless sky and when he looks back, the stranger feels a fear not for himself and possibly not for the other man but a fear nonetheless, deep and uncertain and profound.

Moving slowly, his body straight and rigid as if he weren’t constructed of bone but of wood, he stops before the stranger and places a hand on his shoulder.

“Keep it,” he says.

Then he’s laughing. He laughs and coughs and wipes his mouth using the back of his hand which now holds several folded bills that he forcefully shoves into the stranger’s lap.

“Damn hard to be anything,” he says.

And the last thing the stranger sees before Aaron turns away for the final time is the old man’s grave eyes serenely close.

Soon the train leaves the city behind, crawling deeper into the desolate flatlands of southern Illinois. A murky gray sky hangs over the land that shows little that’s not brown. Soil. Dead grass. Withered corn stalks. Houses with rotting wood.

He pulls the picture of his son out from his wallet. It’s an old picture from the time when he was just a boy and standing in the flattened yard with the vast leveled prairie beyond and his green eyes swelled and glowing.

He holds the picture close to his face and thinks about the son and where he is now and where he used to be and he lies in great awe at the difference. Such time has passed. Lying with his neck sorely anchored by the chair’s stiff arm, he begins to recall the early mornings cradling the son out on the porch and watching the thin gray fog sweep over the land. How it felt rocking the boy and feeling his tiny heart beat and throb through the wool blanket. The child’s green eyes like sparkling emeralds deeply pitted in their sockets. And the fog, a light mist over the morning, gray beads sprinkled over the clay roads and before the wooden houses and farther out beyond the basined field of straw grass the Appalachians rising from the earth like an overseeing power, indomitable, eternal. And the streets serpentine throughout the town and the cars exhausting their smoke and all the sojourners traveling from one place to the next or simply standing in immobility beneath the memorial twilight were of no concern to him so long as he held the child.

The train lurches and he rolls off the seat, his body landing with a dull thud. Pain sears his tongue. He tastes the blood, cold and metallic, and lies there for some time with a dreadful stillness falling over the car. The photograph of his son rests out of reach in the aisle. He feels a desperate longing for his parents who are dead and who have been dead for many years but whom he still wakes some mornings and thinks to be alive.

He kneels and stands then grabs the photograph and lies back down.

The sun burns far behind the train, its light slanting off the window and stippling his legs, and he considers each orange droplet during his journey to sleep.

He dreamt many dreams and some weren’t so much as dreams as they were memories of vanished days. His son tossing a baseball through a so blue sky, scampering through the golden wheat grass on the opposite side of the brown fence, and carefully receiving the ball as it descended in a blurred spiral. There was another that could’ve been considered many different dreams but which he knew to be one long dream. It’s the many mornings of rising in his bedroom, alone and cold, long before the day had light and long before any others were awake. Dark hours which themselves feel like dreams, dazed and faded and wrought with origin-less thoughts. And in the drafty old home navigating the halls in a darkness absolute and palpable, for his son’s room where he kisses the boy on his forehead, which was like a smooth stone, and then standing over the son’s bed for some time, just watching the white chest rise and fall, rise and fall, capturing this lasting image of the palpitating chest for the long hours of driving the sixteen-wheeler that awaited.

In the dream he saw this repeat many times and he saw the endless road and the passing headlights and when his weary eyes began to sting and his head began to falter, he’d recall the boy’s sleeping image and his expanding chest and his rib cage flashing so defined, so thin beneath the pasty skin, and suddenly exhaustion’s bite no longer stung and when Aaron returned that night and every night he’d go to the boy’s room and watch the chest rise and fall, rise and fall.

His father used to say, We are of few days and full of trouble.

Looking back down the car the booths which were once overflowing are now empty, quiet, the slow dwindling of lives.

Crumpled tickets left in the seat’s prongs. Empty beer cans atop the can’s garbage. The bitter smell left by people’s breaths, clothes, sprays, burps, dreams. These are the small lonely horrors only the final passenger must face.

The train grinds to a stop and he watches the doors slide open, tearing apart his reflection.

The station building’s glossy windows were like those in old museums. Loose bricks lie crumbled on the platform as if ruins from a former world. An odd feeling it is to see yourself ripped in half. He takes a seat on the lone bench under a gray awning and watches a yellowed tunnel of tulip poplars slowly devour the train.

The pastoral land beyond the tracks wavers in a wind that he can only see.

Then he walks. A forlorn creature shuffling along the road’s shoulder. Vibrant threads of pain band across his back. He knew he didn’t have much time left and loping along the narrow path that divides the road from the steep decline, the fields below dried and brown, the woods just beyond the rusted guardrail dense, impenetrable, he thought there was no way for any man to know his own death. He was thinking the closest to death one gets are the moments looking back and seeing the great big world towering above, and in these times when so brittle and fragile you could see death’s initial warnings coming in the way the dark clouds roll over the Appalachians.

He had just seen his home’s smokestack chimney stooped above the hills when he falls. The red plastic lighter spills and clatters across the pebbles. A burning in his palms, whitely coiled with dead skin. What a beautiful thing to watch, the slow slithering roll of fresh blood.

An airplane tears through the so blue sky. His father used to say, We are of few days and full of trouble but dying is shit.

He pulls his leather jacket tight and remembers the day his mother gave it to him. He’d never told his son that story. And he’d never told his son about the many years driving and the many nights sleeping alone in the back of the truck listening to distant cars pass by on the highway. About the boy’s first years and how he’d quit smoking entirely during those years. About the night he saw the yellow glimmer on the side of the road and how he’d pulled over and searched through the bushes and thickets while an owl talked with a bird above in the trees and how the wind was sharp enough to rip paper and how through this work came the discovery of the small golden‐haired dog, seated atop a bed of grass like some sacred idol.

He wondered why he’d never told his son any of this.

When he steps through the wooden gate, eyes fixated at the top of the hunchbacked hill where the small brown house resides, he feels that he’ll never die.

There’s a rocking chair on the porch along with a swinging bench whose chains tarnished by an orange crust rattle in the wind. The bag drags along the yellow grass as he slowly ascends the hill. At the top, he sets the bag down and coughs and looks out at the land he once knew but that has long since abandoned him, and he can almost see the old village with its old houses and tented roofs and clothes pinned to the line drying in the wind, but the image fades into what now stands before him, a town of redbrick and metal fences, of cement roads and shimmering glass and loud cars driven by creatures he’s not sure are of the same species.

Dark storm clouds build in the eastern distance.

He climbs the rickety steps and walks into the house. The golden dog is sitting there just as he’d left her. She begins licking the dried blood off his hands. He throws his red hat on a wooden rack nailed to the wall then allows the red vinyl couch to swallow his spent body whole.

The telephone rings from the kitchen. He listens to it ring then go silent. When it rings again, he swings his legs off the couch but doesn’t stand. He reaches below the couch and pulls out a large red book twice the size of any Bible. The cover reads, in gold reflective lettering, “BUTCH’s 40 Sayings to Live By.” He lies back down and begins to read with the dog by his side barking as the phone continues to wail.

There’s Joby stoking a growing fire and BUTCH lying half‐opened on his chest. There’s his son and his God and the golden dog rolled into a ball. He says nothing. The strain from travel enlivens his legs, alive he is, surely, where there’s pain there’s life, where there’s pain there’s memory.

Joby mounts the cast iron above the fire and turns to find his father awake and his lips, bluely tinted, mumbling softly.

“I called,” he says.

Aaron’s gaze doesn’t shift. “I heard it. Don’t like using that damned thing, that’s all.”

The golden dog growls by Joby’s feet.

“I swear you’ve trained her to do that.”

“Believe it or not, but I got more purposes than bothering you.”

Joby paces towards the back window and peels away the curtain to look out at the night. The dog follows at a distance. It’s good he has the jacket because he can’t for the life of him remember anything his mother said.

“Sun already moved on from there.”

“I know where I’m standing,” says Joby.

He keeps like this for some time. Aaron observes the thick neck, the stretched shoulders, the full arms like the branches of a Maple tree, and the sadness he feels then isn’t like any he’s ever felt before. He bites down on his lower lip. A shapeless sadness, unbounded, consuming and directionless. The fire hisses, spitting embers. His mouth tastes like pennies.

“Come over here. Been damn near a month since I last saw you.”

Joby slowly turns and walks to the couch. The dog remains by the backdoor, crouched and growling. He stands over his father who lies still and condensed with his hands folded behind his neck and the fire’s light captured in BUTCH’S gold lettering.

“I can’t see you way up there. Kneel down. Let me see you.”

“Dad, there’s-”

“Oh, come, come, we can talk in a minute. I just want to get a look at you. Almost forget what color your eyes were all this time.”

Joby breaks to one knee. In the distance there’s the whistling of a passing train and the lowest grumblings of thunder. He keeps his hands hidden.

“See you got your jacket back,” says Joby.

Thousands of tiny creases rise to the surface of Aaron’s face when he smiles. As if he were an artifact caked in dust and grime just now being discovered.

“I ever tell you how I got this jacket?”

Joby bows his head. “Dad. Please.”

“In fact, I know I haven’t. Don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about it. You ever get that feeling – come closer and lift your head, I need to see you.”

Joby raises his head, one eyebrow raised above the other. Framed by the bright fire and the sunlight’s dying arc, his face is grayly shadowed.

“What feeling?” he asks. “The hell you mean?”

He sniffles and touches a hand to his eyes. “Never mind.”

Aaron smile widens in the way a dog’s does when it sees food. “Look at you. My own boy. Now I know you want to talk, but I did lots of thinking on the way, trains are good for that. And son, you got to let me tell you about this jacket.”

Joby sniffles and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Tell me about the jacket,” he says.

Aaron watches the fire, the lashing flames, the deep blue underneath, smoke billowing and rising in great gray clouds. From the couch looking up, the flames lash out behind Joby’s head making it look afire.

“No,” he says. “There ain’t too much to tell anyways. My mother bought it for me is all.”

“You’ve had it for that long?”

“Nearly my whole life. Almost as long as I’ve been in this house.” He looks at his son’s bowed head and places a gentle hand atop it as if he were christening him. “Almost as long as I’ve had you.” He lifts BUTCH off his chest and grips the book tightly before holding it out to Joby who only looks away.

“Butch. Take Butch. I want you to have him.”

Rolling thunder shatters the sky and chains of white lightning fall splintered from the dark clouds to the horizon. Joby saw all this through the back window where he proceeds to walk, away from his father who then sets the book down on his knees.

It was then that Aaron saw the papers.

“What’s it you got there?” he says.

Joby speaks with one hand to his face and the other holding the papers.

“You’ve been accepted to Weston Homes. They’re going to take care of you.”

Aaron would’ve laughed if he didn’t begin coughing. “The hell you mean? Look around. Already got a home. Now go to that fridge and grab us a few drinks. I know you ain’t one for drinking, but hell, Uncle Riordan had a drink for breakfast each morning and he made it to ninety.”

Joby stands by the backdoor. He says nothing. Aaron watches for some time then, setting Butch on the wooden coffee table first, swings his legs off the couch. “Alright, then. I’ll get them.” Only he can’t stand, his legs long since fallen limp, and the sound of his fall back to the couch is masked by the thunder and the fire and the dog’s nails clicking off the wood floor. “Wasn’t too thirsty anyways,” he says.

“I took some pictures,” says Joby, moving from the backdoor to the fire. “I talked to all the managers. It’s a fine place and they’re fine people.” Aaron watches as the papers slide onto Butch’s cover. “This is a good thing,” he says.

“What’re you saying?”

“You know what I’m saying,” says Joby. “This is a good thing.”

“For who?” says Aaron.

“For everyone.”

Joby doesn’t turn from the fire and the dog licks Aaron’s hands.

“Butch says that someone always gives and someone always takes and if you don’t know which side you’re on then you’re giving. That’s what this is.”

“That’s not what this is.”

“And to your own father, no less. Your own blood. Well, son, you win.”

“No,” says Joby. “That’s not how anything is anymore. It’s not winning and losing, Dad. We’ve moved on.”

“Don’t shit in my kitchen and call it steak.”

Joby grinds his teeth and looks to the backdoor.

Aaron strikes a match and starts to smoke. The dog lies down by the couch. Joby again takes hold of the cast iron and stokes the fire but the logs sizzle and tumble in great heaps of ash.

“I’ll get diggers out here tomorrow,” he says. “They’ll take care of the back.”

“Look at me when you’re talking.”

Joby turns, a towering shadow in the dark room.

“I’ll get diggers out – “

“I heard you the first time. But I want to hear you say it with a beer. I want to see you drink a beer and I want to see you smoke this cigarette. Then you can say it.”

Aaron doesn’t watch as Joby furtively glances over the dwindling fire before walking to the kitchen. He smokes and smooths his fingers over Butch, denounced by his son but still a God, ever since the night his truck broke down in that lonesome town somewhere far west of here, a place so utterly deserted it perhaps disappeared the moment he left, but not before it’d had the chance to give him Butch courtesy of the gas station owner who might’ve been the only man Aaron had ever met lonelier than himself, lonely enough to sleep inside his own store, lonely enough to sense someone of his own kin. The stranger had helped fix the engine and as Aaron climbed back into the truck’s pit had come running out the store, the big red book in his hands.

Just another thing the boy ain’t never heard, he thinks. Just another thing I ain’t never told nobody.

Joby returns holding a beer and without looking at his father snatches the burning cigarette from his lips. Aaron doesn’t flinch, his colorless eyes inhaling Butch’s words.

He opens the beer and takes a long drink. “What’s Butch saying today?”

Aaron lights another cigarette. He looks away as the fire exhales its final black breaths. “No need to say it like that.”

Joby laughs, a quick burst of air. “Like what?”

Aaron turns and in the dim-shadowed room sees not his son but the hooded stranger with the roan tooth. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s damn hard to be anything in this world.”

He drinks and flicks away a fragile filter of ash. “Am I supposed to know when Butch is talking and when it’s just you?” He smokes, then in a low murmur says, “You could’ve sold this land years ago and made a fortune and what’d you do. You listened to that book. A damned curse, is what it is. This place isn’t worth anything no more. Nothing. Even the land has moved on. I look up at the mountains somedays and think you could’ve owned it all if only you hadn’t listened to that book. Could’ve had the whole world if you’d only moved on.”

Aaron says nothing for many moments, calmly closing Butch and considering the darkness, depthless and impenetrable, brooding on just the other side of the backdoor. He breathes clearly, smoothly, and again looks at his son.

“Say what you need to say. Then get out of my house.”

“The diggers will be here in the morning. Don’t worry about the money. I’ll take care of that. But Aaron, they’re coming tomorrow, regardless.”

Aaron remembers the chest of his son, rising and falling, from the long-ago years, rising and falling.

Joby finishes the beer and sets it on the wooden table. He throws the cigarette into the fireless pit then stands over the couch. “I’m sorry,” he says, and rubs his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Aaron exhales a full cloud of smoke.

“You may be sorry, son. And your work may be good, and your money may be good, but you will inherit only wind.”

***

The moon reappears out behind a gray cloud, full except for a black sliver missing along the side as if cut by a knife. Dragging his father’s old spade by his side, Aaron climbs the small hill where two wicker crosses protrude from the earth. He coughs and spits and lays a foot on the damp soil, a tear clinging to his jaw before falling.

With eyes welling and an anonymous weariness, an ineffable exhaustion hovering over his very existence, the culmination of a life that’s endured many hard, hard miles, he drives the spade into the dirt. He thrusts the spade again and does so over and over and doesn’t stop until he’s knee-deep in the grave. Digging and tossing and coughing and wiping specks of dirt from his dampened eyes and finally connecting with the dull thud of metal on wood. He swings a stiff leg over the grave’s edge and planting a ripped and bloody hand into the dirt, spins out of the deathly hole onto a patch of grass where he catches his breath and stares up at the starless sky.

When his chest no longer burns, he rolls onto his throbbing knees and begins to crawl. He pulls out the crosses and lays them side by side in the grass.

He cries. Quietly at first, then louder, the tears painting dark lines along his dried skin. The dog howls from the backdoor. He raises his arms to the sky and opens his mouth only nothing comes out. He kneels in the dirt next to the dug grave, swaying back and forth with darkness filling the space above his quivering jaw.

His muddied hands clasp at the dirt.

“Mother, father, I know it’s been some time since we last talked, but I figured you’ve been resting so why disturb you.” He rocks back on his legs and looks around at the night then back at the graves.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Y’all got out at the right time. It’s damn hard to be anything in this world.”

He tilts back his head and stares up at the dark sky and when he looks back at the house he sees the dog, barking at the night’s ghosts, its paws crossed over the big red book.

***

When the diggers arrive the following morning, they knock on the screen door before heading to the back. Sitting by the backdoor is the dog. She looks up at the men briefly, then lowers her head and they can see her blinking as they inspect the area around the shed.

Gray clouds form a blanket over the developing day. The air trapped below the umber mountains cold and motionless. The men speak softly with their shovels balanced behind their necks. They leave the shed and trudge across the lawn and up the small hill.

That’s where they find the body. Supine. Eyes serenely shut. Red cap snug around the head. Blistered hands resting on top a leather jacket. Next to the body and sprinkled with dirt lies a big red book whose golden lettering captures no light. A spade rests way out in the grass. Each of the holes have been filled and the tops smoothed.

One of the men picks up the book and opens it to a dog-eared page. “What’s it say?” asks another one of the diggers.

“If you let them kill you, they will.”

“The hell’s that supposed to mean.”

The man shrugs. Then he pulls out the two wicker crosses and begins to dig. “Don’t know. But I do know he said there were only two bodies so this one’s costing him extra.”

About the Author

Daniel Bartkowiak

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Daniel Bartkowiak is a college student living in Chicago, Illinois.