Centralia was one of my childhood fascinations. A once vibrant coal town my family drove through several times a year on the way to visit relatives. It might have looked like a town built on a cloud, everything shrouded in white vapor, but it was more that a tiny piece of hell had managed to escape and lodge itself underneath the earth’s crust in Columbia County, Pennsylvania.
A vein of anthracite coal below paved streets, houses, municipal buildings, utility poles, swing sets, mailboxes, children on bikes, fathers mowing the lawn, and grandmother’s pruning rose bushes, was on fire. It was a runaway kind of thing. Centralia’s air was filled with methane smoke escaping through cracked sidewalks, buckled asphalt, vents installed to alleviate gas in basements.
According to my father who followed the news regarding Centralia, the problem wasn’t getting any better despite various amelioration efforts by the state. The town was poisoning its own inhabitants, many of them descendants of people who had given birth, raised children, died, and were buried there. Many didn’t want to leave Centralia even when it was clear that the town couldn’t be saved, but eventually most of them did.
My family and I watched Centralia disappear before our eyes throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Whenever we passed through, I begged my father to slow down so I could see what was still there. Whole streets of houses held on for a while. Stop signs. The U.S. Post Office flying the American flag. The Municipal Building. When a house was obviously vacant, I clung to the idea that the people could still come back once the fire went out. One year we passed a boarded-up house with a fresh coat of bright yellow paint. A flat tired bike leaned against the detached garage. The porch furniture and cushions were still there, pots of red geraniums bloomed on either side of the front door, and in the back yard, a clothesline, and rows of meticulously stacked wood.
Eventually as the state claimed more and more structures by eminent domain, entire neighborhoods were bulldozed, and Centralia became more of a memory of a town than a real town. Empty fields with paved streets. Cemetery all by itself without its church. A swing set in the middle of nowhere with no swings, silver slide lying on the ground on its side like an extinct dinosaur. Daffodils and tulips bloomed in grave gardens. Overgrown, crooked tomato stakes waited for vine.
Was it only me who could still hear the children laughing, boots crunching as they chased each other over ice crusted snow. What of the school bell, horns that honked to say hello, what of music sifting from the windows of the house where the piano teacher lived.
The last time I drove through Centralia with my parents I was in high school. A new road was scheduled to open the following year and we would be bypassing the town. Due to sinkholes, it had become too dangerous to allow people to drive near it.
One house, still occupied, stood alone in the middle of an abandoned street. Neighboring homes on either side had been leveled. The house had a new pale green shingle roof I didn’t remember from the previous summer and a recently mowed lawn. Purple and white petunias burst color around the base of a mailbox shaped like a locomotive engine. On the front porch, a golden retriever thumped his tail, gnawing a bone. There was a light in the kitchen that day, in what I assumed was the kitchen, at the back of the house. Parked nose to fender in the cinder driveway, two pickups, one silver and a red one identical to my father’s, only cleaner.
“I wonder where that fella gets his truck washed,” Dad said.
“A car wash!” Mom said. “Who cares about a car wash. What about a grocery store, a dentist, a medical doctor in case of an emergency.”
“This isn’t the moon, Terry. There are other towns in Columbia County.”
“Not that close. These people who stay here aren’t rational. It’s simply impossible to live here anymore. They are being reckless.”
I didn’t think so. I thought they were heroic. They weren’t giving up on their town. When they looked outside of their windows, they saw streets, yards, a school, a church, a picnic grove, and a town square full of people. Maybe they believed Centralia still had a chance to return to what it once was. Who knows what is impossible.
Or maybe it was simply the happiest of things to share a town with ghost images, memories of people and times gone by. Where is the rule written that we have to live for today or tomorrow. What’s wrong with living in the past.
Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found in CRAFT, The Florida Review, Reed Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Permafrost Magazine, Broadkill Review among others. Her poetry chapbooks are available from Moonstone Press. She has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. A short story collection is upcoming from The Devil’s Party Press. Visit her at https://virginiawatts.com/.