A work of fiction 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
“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
“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
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,”
“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
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 ancestral 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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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
Betts is a secondary language arts teacher
who sidelines as a food critic. She lives near Denver, Colo. This story is based
Centralia, Pennsylvania's actual terrain, a town whose massive coal deposits
are on fire underneath.