by Kristie Betts
Daddy always wanted to be cremated. Being Catholic makes cremation impractical; apparently God only pays attention when you arrive in satin-lined oak with inlaid mother-of pearl. In the long repetitive process of dying, Daddy told us again and again that he didn’t want to be buried. But when the hour arose, Mama chose a shade of shell-pink for his satin pillow. Never in his life was Daddy a man to be ignored, and I can’t help thinking that he had a hand in this fire.
Centralia is burning now. His hometown. A rolling stretch of beauty, trees and ponds, peppered with sinkholes that snake down to the caverns below. Years ago on the schoolbus, kids whispered stories of cows and children crippled or simply taken by these sinkholes. Today as I drove through the familiar passages and hollows, the place looked shell-shocked. Razed. Piles of rubble where houses stood and smoke rising, not from bombs but from cracks in the ground feeding oxygen to the subterranean coal fire. Centralia was a coal town. Now, instead of being chipped away by men choking on its dust, the coal burns in labyrinths beneath deserted streets and crumpled houses.
I returned on a diplomatic mission. The impossibly skinny house where my stubborn aunties live had been bolstered by wooden supports on each side, to replace all of the demolished neighboring rowhouses. The three old women were going down with the ship, refusing the government’s money and the safety of moving closer to Harrisburg.
I parked on the desolate street. Without the houses, I could see as far as the cemetery. Closer to the familiar blue door, the landscape made sense to me again, if I ignored my peripheral vision. Here sweet aunties would pat my head and give me a dollar when we packed the car to leave, every year without fail. Even last year.
“You have to be the voice of reason,” my mother said. She fingered her necklace and hurried me on my mission. “Those old Biddies are burning, and they act like they don’t care. It’s outlandish.”
“It’s also not safe. The town has been condemned,” I said. The old women were not in danger of going up in a ball of flame as much as being pulled down by the ground collapsing beneath them as the fire slowly erodes the ground support. Experts say that this process could take up to fifteen years, but the other residents didn’t want to take chances.
“Well of course it’s not safe. And they were in that paper looking like crazy old geezers.” Embarrassment drove Mama’s humanitarian project.
“What am I supposed to say if they don’t want to leave?” I asked. “After all, they don’t have much time left. Lots of people dying of cancer opt out of chemotherapy.”
My mother crossed herself. “How can you even mention cancer!”
She did not however suggest that we exhume Daddy and move his final resting place somewhere cooler, even though his fine oak coffin would soon be outlandishly on fire. He died from coal dust eating up his lungs, burning his breath until pieces of lung jumped out of his throat with each cough. She had disobeyed his final wish with the fancy casket and funeral hoopla—no one could accuse Mama of not noticing the significance of a burning bush.
Right before I left home the blue plate dropped. Skip was late coming home again and I was so that I could not keep my soapy fingers steady. The blue plate was part of my great-grandmother Mary Jean’s wedding china, which she cocooned in her delicate undergarments to keep them safe in her trunk during the passage from Ireland. The broken plate was a sign.
My mother had warned me extensively about “shacking up,” far more willing to have me marry a man she did not approve of then live with him in sin.
That very night, my common-law husband pulled up in an aged fire-engine-red truck that stood as high as our house. How small he looked jumping three feet down to the ground from its rubber runner. I had just put my uniform in the dryer when the truck crashed up the driveway. Skip swaggered in calling for “his honey” and looking for an argument. He was drunk and swaying back and forth in rhythm with the thrusts of his accusatory finger. The fight heated up for real when I found out he took the money out of my savings account, all the money from Daddy’s insurance. My three thousand dollar inheritance.
“To buy you a present,” he said. Thickly. Indignantly.
“Great Skip. Great. How did you know that I wanted a monster truck?” Out the kitchen window the thing burned in the corner of my eyes. “A huge red piece of shit that I bet I can’t even climb into? To buy me a present, eh? Some fucking present. And with my money. With my money. With my goddamn money.” At this point I started to cry, and the cat meowed, awakened from sleep by the electricity of my anger crackling through the house.
Skip mumbled something to the tune of “ungrateful bitch” and drove off in his red monstrosity. I was feeling too mad and broken to even worry about his driving. Trying to comfort the cat and myself with the same sobbing shush.
When the crooked blue door of the Centralia house swung inward, I couldn’t see anything for a moment. The inside of the skinny structure was pitch dark in contrast to the bright sun of the spring day outside, hazed only slightly by smoke. Old Mare, nee Mary, answered the door and welcomed me into the cool darkness.
“Who is it?” a sotto voice on the couch asked.
“Why it’s Denny and Laura’s girl, all grown, come to visit us Clara.” I made a mental note that Clara was the blind one. I always forgot. Clara and Jean were virtually indistinguishable, each with a speckled face and her own couch. I called them all “Auntie” to their faces and “Biddies” behind their backs, just like everyone in the family did. Since one of her sisters lost both legs to diabetes and the other was partially paralyzed by a stroke three years ago, Old Mare’s shuffling steps move for all of them. Old Mare still had her sight, though a helicopter left her with one glass eye. These women, folded like dumplings into faded couches, had gone to war with their brother—my father. When they returned from nursing overseas, they simply never left home again. We all assumed they had made some sort of pact, pledging their lives to each other and this rowhouse rather than to marriage, children, or careers.
The Biddies offered me cider and moist Oreos. Why did my mother think I could succeed where heavy-handed government officials failed? “Love speaks louder than the law,” my mother said, by way of explanation. But Mama’s hope that I could help the family save face tempered her reaction when she saw my overloaded Chevy the day before.
“How long are you staying honey?” she exclaimed. “You need to get up Centralia as soon as possible. Is all of that laundry?”
“I left him Mama,” I said.
“Marriage is the promise that we make that mends relationships,” she said.
“Well, it didn’t mend my last one,” I answered. “Isn’t it wrong to marry someone you know for a fact you cannot love forever?”
“Here, hand me that coat before you drag it on the driveway.… Why, when your Daddy and I first got married I wasn’t even upset when him and his sisters went to war, I thought I would be glad for the time to myself. What I didn’t realize was the true meaning of the marriage bond....”
She would have continued for hours in her sing-song voice, telling me about how legitimization is love’s glue, despite all the direct family evidence to the contrary.
“Mama, I’m too tired to talk and my heart hurts. I can’t go back and really I don’t need advice.” I tried to gauge my mother’s face by the way some drawstring tightened its parts. She opened her puckered mouth slowly but I jumped in before anything could get out.
“What I do need is a good night’s rest before I leave for Centralia.”
That shut her up.
I’m a thirty-year old divorcee because my mother wanted to save face at Saint Mary’s. One sunny afternoon when I was home from college, my boyfriend Mike and I made private space for ourselves in the back of my little green car. Somehow in the midst of coupling, an errant knee knocked the Chevy into gear and we crashed into the side of the empty house, which turned out to be a DC politicians ancenstral home. Police even wrote the “indecent behavior” part on the incident report because otherwise we would be charged with criminal intent. And even though she called Mike my “derelict communist boyfriend,” Mama started planning which lunchmeat to serve at the wedding.
On our wedding night Mike got so drunk that he called my relatives “capitalist pigs” and “bourgeois shits,” forgetting in his state that everyone wore blue collars here and he was actually the WASP. My new life partner couldn’t walk alone to our bed, much less perform his husbandly duty. Of course everyone already knew we had consummated the thing a bit early, so I guess it didn’t much matter. I put him to bed and went downstairs to start cleaning up.
Old Mare, standing in for her sisters who never traveled, was still staring into a glass of gin at the crepe-papered kitchen table. Her good eye winked when she smiled at me. She left the other one stuck to a helicopter blade in World War Two; her lovely brown glass eye was prettier than her real one.
“Eh! The beautiful bride. What a little peach.” My Auntie reached her arms in my direction and smiled wider. She never said my name—I had so many cousins that she probably only knew me as the one that got married in the A-line dress that day.
“Auntie I wanna soak the dishes,” I said as I sidestepped unsteady hands.
“Give me a hug darlin’!” Old Mare pleaded. “I got my eye on you girlie girl! Eh!” I turned around to see gin sloshed over the top of the glass the old woman held out as an offering.
I walked over and grabbed the glass before my aunt dumped gin on the carpet and had to crawl around trying to find her prosthetic peeper. “God bless you” she murmured.
“Yeah, well God bless you too Old Mare, you silly old drunk,” I said and took a swig from the glass of gin. My first drink of the night.
“Fire in the hole,” my Auntie said. Old Mare’s real eye shone with approval. Her wide brown prosthesis rolled at the bottom of the glass of gin. She did this whenever she was drunk, which these days only happened on sanctified occasions: baptisms, weddings and funerals.
I kissed the crumpled left side of her face, all wrinkles and depressions without the support of the prosthesis. “There, are you happy now? Put your eye back before you lose it.” I handed her the glass.
“Little bride girl. Eh!” She made no move to grab the glass.
I figured the gin was sterile enough—alcohol and all—so I plucked Old Mare’s eye out of her drink. I lifted up the folds of flesh on the old gal’s face with my other hand. She just sat there like a dog letting a child turn its ears inside out. When the eye nestled in its hollow it needed turning, so that it stared straight ahead again, looking at me.
I missed Daddy then, more than when my mother’s brother had to walk me down the aisle. Daddy was always the last one asleep; he would have cooked up some eggs over easy and laughed about Old Mare’s gin-eye and about being called capitalists. We all would have sat up until dawn trading jokes.
My aunties thought that they could pin the fire down to an unhappy Centralia housewife and a sinkhole behind a shed. This woman was preoccupied with her husband’s erratic comings and goings, since he was a laid-off mine worker with a serious thirst. One night when he was late coming home, she threw his dinner, his grandfather’s pocket watch, and the still burning logs from the parlor fire into that sinkhole.
The Aunties are convinced this angry moment in 1940 set the place ablaze.
Government officials think that a laid-off miner may have shoved cigarettes into a coal deposit to begin the slow burn. Either way, a old unhappiness eventually destroyed this landscape. As I sipped warm cider waiting for the right moment to speak my mother’s words, the cackling old women mapped out Centralia as it used to be, drawing in its shapes and movements with stories, names, and knowing laughter. They refused to comment on the world beyond their hometown and the extended family it had produced. I had one photo of my Aunties, back in the war days. In front of some species of plane, they stood arm in arm wearing bright nursing uniforms. I never have been able to tell which one is which. For some reason, they all looked exactly like Amelia Earhart to me.
Finally I licked the Oreo from my fingers and got down to business. “Mary, Clara, Jean,” I began, with a serious breath. My aunties turned to me in unison, lassoed by the conviction in my voice and the unfamiliar sound of their Christian names. I had to bring the conversation around to the heart of the issue.
“Don’t leave this house that you love. Stick it out.” The three women nodded in unison, staring from serious wet eyes. “Don’t sign any papers. If you love this place than you’ve gotta stick by it, even if it is burning.” An auntie on a couch barked a little laugh.
“They can only force you to leave when the government declares it a national emergency, and those official folks are really slow about that sort of thing.” I kissed three foreheads, soft and wrinkled as rumpled Kleenexes, and gave each Biddy a ten-dollar bill. One of them, the blind one, ran her hand down the side of my face, perhaps with love, perhaps to see if I was for real. “If anyone gives you any more shit, just give me a call,” I said and headed for the crooked door.
The three women smiled out from worn-in faces, looking at me like I was an angel with the gratified expression of my wrinkly cat when I offer her a drink of milk. They smiled behind me, saying “goodbye dearie” while Old Mare shut their blue door against the smoke. Maybe they weren’t sure of my proper name either, just a general map of my genealogy.
My mother was going to kill me.
This Centralia fire could just be another of Daddy’s exhibitions in the face of Mama’s screeches for “good manners”. His voice boomed against Mama’s brand of decency. The man from the insurance company told Daddy he should sue the mine for scorching his lungs, for killing him. Daddy just shrugged and said that would be like suing a snake for biting.
He always twisted jokes from sorrows. When the black lung pained him the most, he took to supplementing his prescription painkillers with Jack Daniels. Before he would down the warm whiskey (ice hurt his teeth), he would say “fire in the hole!” Then toss it back. The expression hearkened back to his days detonating land mines in the war; later he and his brother Ray made it their drinking toast. When Daddy drank away his morning pain alone, he would lift his left eyebrow as he said it, fully aware of his black humor.
Daddy would have gotten a kick out of the purple sweatsuit Old Mare wore to his funeral, the one Mama called “that sacrilegious suit.” But he didn’t want some black-draped sobby service.“Why throw a bad party?” Daddy said. He even gave away all of his personal effects himself, quickly and whimsically, to avoid post-mortem squabble.
My personal effects were all crammed in my car. Luckily alcohol made Skip sleep like the dead yesterday, when I clumped and banged in and out of closets taking everything of value. After the old Chevy was packed to the gills with my things, the cat toys, I stood, cat carrier on hip, in the shadow of the red truck with tires as tall as my shoulder. Here was my Daddy’s inheritance, I thought.
After Mike the socialist, I swore to myself and all my closest girlfriends that my next man would not be a self-styled intellectual. “No more politicos,” I said. “They are terrible in the sack. Not enough exercise.” We laughed until potato chips spit from our mouths, but careful what you wish for. No one would call sexy Skip an intellectual, that’s for sure.
If Daddy could have gotten an eyeful of that big red thing, he would have barreled over to Skip’s personal space and told him a thing or two. On my way out I grabbed the sole set of keys for Skip’s new truck. Then I carefully poured a half a bag of sugar into its gas tank. Mama used to shut us up by saying, “Sweetness speaks for itself.”
Momentarily blinded by the hazy sun outside of my aunties’ house, I had to give my eyes a chance to fit themselves to the situation. Instead of returning to the car, I headed towards the graveyard. Since my father died, I have only been back a few times. I feel closer lines of communication when I close my eyes and think about him from the comfort of home than sitting in a scrubby, smoking cemetery. Set in a once-lovely valley just two blocks from the Biddies, the Centralia graveyard had some of the most visible ground damage from the underground fire. Cracks, opened by the heat below, gaped between tilted gravestones. The south side had a yawning crevice that I definitely didn’t want to crawl too close to, so I stayed near the north bunch of birch next to Daddy’s grave. A fissure opened not four feet from his final resting place and I decided this was my portal.
I crawled commando style towards the hole in the ground leaking a thin stream of smoke. The thought that perhaps the coal fire could suddenly erupt, like a volcano, gave me a momentary anxiety attack about facial disfigurement. Not an auspicious start to a newly single life. But this fire held steady at a slow burn, so a sudden eruption was pretty damn unlikely. I darted my hand into the smoke, and discovered that the gray wisps were not even that hot; the fire had to be really far down.
Deep breath. I had to roll partially onto my side to work the keys out of my suit jacket pocket. An offering for Daddy, like families who give their dead relatives wine to help them have fun in the afterworld. These would give Daddy a chuckle.
“I love you Daddy. Don’t worry I’m fine, and your old cousins too.” My eyes blurred for a minute. The smoke. I snaked my arm forward and dangled the keys over the edge of the hole.
“See these keys? They’re all yours Daddy. Do what you want with ‘em,” I yelled into the hole. A low mumble from the ground almost sounded like the beginnings of a laugh in Daddy’s barrel chest. Plunging my hand into the thickest column of smoke, I let the keys drop. I lay on the ground long after the plinks stopped, imagining those keys bouncing off shelf after shelf of orange coal until they landed in my Daddy’s hand, now burnt as black as his lungs.
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