A boy named Todd is taking a shortcut through his grandmother’s yard one day in 1981. He is twelve years old, and he lives twelve miles down Pennsylvania’s Route 61 from where my father grew up, now nineteen and off to his first year of college after a life in Catholic school. Todd is also in Catholic school, in the seventh grade, and by now he is used to sinkholes. The whole town of Centralia is. He watches his neighbors pack them in with ash and top soil when the steam comes up through the dirt in their backyards. Today Todd is wearing a bright orange hunting cap when he walks behind his grandmother’s house, alone, stopping for a moment to see if what’s caught his eye is sinkhole steam or only fog. Maybe it’s grey and humid that day, a typical mountain afternoon. Maybe his grandmother lives in a skinny, tall, tiered house like my grandmother did twelve miles away. Maybe it’s the same house she grew up in. Maybe her yard is small and fenced in and right up close to their neighbors’, or maybe the yard is larger and sprawling, a little farther from the rest of town. Centralia is dense and close-knit in 1981, tied together by a past of hard labor like the other little towns in this area. The population is around two thousand, and there are between seven and eight hundred buildings in the borough. The cemeteries at the edge of town hold generations of the dead.
I wonder if Todd squatted close to the ground to try to see the earth burning through the sinkhole, like kids his age said they could. Maybe he was looking for the blue glow of methane gas that was legend by now; maybe he was looking for ghosts of old miners that were said to live in the hell beneath them. Whatever he was wondering, when Todd cut through his grandmother’s backyard the ground fell out from under him and all but ate him up. When he fell, he hung onto a tree root and got covered in mud that hardened from the fire’s heat onto his heavy coat. Todd retells the story years later, saying, “You couldn’t go to a carwash and blast me off, it was just baked on.” Within a couple minutes, Todd’s cousin Eric spots the orange hunting cap from their grandmother’s window. He realizes that this is Todd, that Todd is now underground. Local legend has it that Eric moves across the yard on his belly to keep from falling in, and he drags Todd out of the ground a lifetime before he should be laid to rest in it. Both boys go to the local hospital but both boys are fine, just a little shook up and covered in mud.
In the next few days, men from the capital come to town to measure the sinkhole. Newspaper men from a few towns over write a piece on it for the local news. The hole’s a couple hundred feet deep and several hundred degrees at the bottom, the result of an old mine fire that started burning around Memorial Day, 1962. This is the first time it’s held the state’s attention for very long, but the people here see the fumes rising from the earth every day. The coal burns longer and hotter here because it’s some of the purest in the world, which was good for industry but then the industry left, and all the town has now is a fire underfoot. The locals say someone’ll have to die before they do anything about it in the state house. Some keep canaries in their homes to make sure the air is safe to breathe.
About two decades after Todd fell into the ground, my father drives my mother and me east on Route 61 from his family home and shows us Centralia. I am young, maybe nine or ten years old, riding in the big backseat of my mother’s minivan, and I don’t understand where we’re going. He pulls off the side of the road and we empty onto an overcast street. We are nowhere, just as we were the whole way over. Dad sinks his hands into the pockets of his slacks and says, “Well, here it is. This is the town I was telling you about.”
Dad has been talking for a few days about a town near where he grew up that isn’t a town anymore. Everybody left, he said, because the ground was on fire. He left this part of Pennsylvania the day he went to college and never lived at home again, but he brings my mother and me along on the drive northeast to visit twice a year. Later, I will do the same: I will graduate from the same high school as my mother in a valley in West Virginia, where the industry is chemical production, not coal; I will quickly, desperately plan my life hundreds of miles away from my home. But here is different. He says that people had to leave because it wasn’t safe. A lot of people didn’t want to, and a handful never left at all. He says there are still a few here, fewer than a dozen, who live in the only houses still standing. We can see them through the sparse trees. These streets used to be city blocks, he says. Over there used to be downtown. He points, but all I see is a torn up concrete and grey-brown hills on the horizon. I have never seen anything like this, a town that’s not a town. I have seen my own town, sparse with vegetation creeping back through cracks in the sidewalks, and famous towns with streets full of people. I know that fundamentally, my hometown differs from what I’ve seen on TV of elsewhere, but I’m too young to grasp rurality, exploitative industries, urban decay. I am young but I know the urge to leave, I know what being from a place like this feels like but I don’t understand this emptiness. I ask my dad, “Where did everybody go?”
He tells me, “They moved or they died. Most only went a town or two over.”
“Why didn’t they put the fire out?”
“It would’ve cost a lot of money they didn’t have. They tried but it didn’t work.”
“But some people stayed?”
He frowns and looks around him, hands back in his pockets. My mother is further down the road, inspecting deep cracks in the sidewalk, laying her palms to the asphalt to see if she can feel fire. I imagine the soles of my shoes melting and sticking to the ground, but when I move my feet they come away just fine. A mourning dove hoots. We are the only living things.
“Nobody’s forced them out yet. But this all used to be as full of houses as Shamokin. I know people who grew up here. I’m sure my folks remember the whole thing from the news.”
The St. Ignatius Cemetery gates are left open and we can go inside. There the gravestones look very old, with eroded death dates in the 1890s. Across a small walkway are stones with new lettering, deep black like the coal burning under our feet. These dates are newer, engraved within the past ten years. Flowers are laid out across the plots and the grass has been neatly mowed.
Dad says to no one, “I guess you’re still coming back to be buried.”
Mandy Clark is a writer, editor, and printmaker living in Chicago. She received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago where she spent much of her time falling in love with Lake Michigan.