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Centralia Mine Fire, by Sarah Blackman

 

We go here in the now. No need for fancy devices, no need for paperwork with its infinity of flapping mouths. Time travel requires a lot of insurance. On this trip, we put the clients on a bus.

We drive down a road to where the road ends and there is a sign cut out of steel that says, “STAY AWAY.” Beyond the sign, the road disintegrates into jumble creased with fissures jetting steam. The jumble is covered in words: “Denise,” “Vanessa,” “Markus,” “Doo Right.” “Help I’ve Fallen.” “This Way Down.” “I Love Jesus.” “I Love Tim.” “I Love Jenni.” “I Fucked Andre in the Ass.”

“I fucked Andre in the ass,” I say. “I fucked Andre in the ass.”

“Shush,” says my father. “Clients.”

The clients are bored and fat and bored and skinny, bored and it is winter, the trees are scribbled all along the edges of the road, tangled up in each other, irritated. If I caught my foot in a trap, I would chew it off, no problem. My brother says he would have to think about it. “Am I imperiled by my environment?” he asks. “Can I wait it out or is there a lava flow slowly approaching?” The clients nearest to us are adjusting their carbon monoxide monitors. They chuckle because his question seems funny and I have blood and fur smeared around my mouth from the foot I have chewed off. Not really. Maybe really. But they are only day trippers. No one here is part of our Dedicated Elite Package for Preferred Voyeurs. No one here is a Frequent Flyer. They have no idea what has happened in the pasts we have visited in the service of Thanotours: “From Our Family to Yours!” They have so far been spared all our futures.

Textbook is being literal. He is both scientific and empirical. I can run like smoke and, if given the chance, will chew off anyone’s foot just to feel my teeth against the bone. My father frowns at me from the place where the road disintegrates into rubble. “Watch out for sinkholes!” he says, ducking into the underbrush.

We all scurry after him. Textbook holds the brambles back so clients won’t snag their sweatshirts, their downy vests, their skin. I bend a bramble back as well, but Textbook gives me the look that means, “Don’t whap a client with a brambled limb just to see the line of blood bead on their cheek,” and so I don’t. The client who ducks past me is middle-age, breasty as a duck. Her hair is cut in a bushy brown huff like the huff of an unsettled duck’s feathers. “Thanks,” she says, not looking at me.

Behind her lurk her children, boys in hooded sweatshirts. Behind them her husband is already checking his monitor. Anxious husband, lurking sons. She waddles her ducky bottom in wide, stiff jeans as brambles catch on her cuffs. I try to imagine the items she has chosen to decorate her house: pewter beer steins, velour sports-themed blankets draped over the back of a leather couch, inspirational kitchen signs, a collection of salt and pepper shakers. One of the boys is too pale. There are old sores crusting and new sores forming around his mouth. Him I whap, just gently. I will take him under my beautiful coal-black wing.

“Here we see a vent that has formed above an actively burning seam,” my father says. The road has resumed. It is no longer a road but an expanse of decay. The asphalt is hummocked and pitted. People come here to drink and poke the ground with sticks. No longer a road for travel but a road for boundary? No longer a path but line of infection racing toward the heart?

My father halts the group next to the deepest gash. We look inside at gooey asphalt and poisonous soil. Textbook takes off his carbon monoxide monitor and holds it steady between the gash’s lips, inside a plume of vented steam. Immediately, it sirens, its red warning lights going nuts. “In 1962, there were fourteen hundred people living in this town,” my father says. He always memorizes his notes—a file cabinet of disaster kept orderly inside his head. He always delivers them the same way, no matter if we are standing inside the mouth of an atomic blast or looking down at some toxic condensation in the crevices of a crumpled beer can. He’s your neighbor, happens to know a little more than you about the subject, but not an expert. He’s the guy you’re talking to over your shared fence.

This is what he explains to me: cadence, approachability. Someone will have to take over the business when he dies.

“Let Textbook do it,” I say.

“But what about you?” my father asks. “Haven’t you ever thought about the future?”

“I’m hungry,” I say. “In the future, I will eat.”

We leave the fissured highway and walk cross-country through a fringe of scabby trees. Behind them is a long scar where fire has caught the forest and fields and burned them flat. Within the scar the earth is hot and rimpled as if it had been criss-crossed by giant, fiery moles. In places, the fire deep underground can be seen glowing up through chinks in the twisted rock.

“Now seven people live here,” my father says. “They have a loan from the government to live out their natural lifespan here and then their land reverts to federal domain.”

“If we stand here too long, the bottoms of our shoes will melt,” Textbook says. This is his job. Color commentary. Wrinkling his mild forehead.

“Hi,” I say to the son I want. He looks at me and then away. “Hi,” I repeat.

My favorite part of the tour is when we visit the Domboski sinkhole. It is not the original, of course. Even unfillable holes fill in over time, but my father has dug it out again. He came at night with a shovel wrapped in a burlap sack to keep from glinting. Private property is still private, even if it is abandoned. He wore a mask over his face to keep the jets of steam from cooking his lungs. He even recrafted the root twelve-year-old Todd clung to when the ground opened beneath his feet, which kept him breathing fresh air until his cousin could pull him out. “Just a few more minutes,” my father says. “And the boy would have asphyxiated.”

The talking is boring, but I love the hole. I love its gummy lips, its convulsive throat. “Imagine yourself in there,” I say to the son I want. “Imagine it trying to swallow.”

Maybe he mishears me because he says, “Yeah, ok. You wanna get out of here?”

I do. I do I do I do I do. Or, rather, I want to get into here. There’s a thing I’d like to try.

“Follow me,” I say and we lurk together at the lip of the Domboski hole while his father passes and his mother passes, his brother kicks a rock into the hole and then he passes. Textbook is listening to a client complain. My father has bobbed behind an abandoned house, gesturing the group to follow. As soon as everyone’s back is turned, I duck into what used to be the garage of the neighbor’s house but is now just a leaning wall and a cracked concrete foundation still stained with oil. The son I want ducks down with me and we are out of sight. Next to me, near but not touching, I feel him breathe. He smells like the cotton of his sweatshirt and, underneath that, the oil in his hair and on his skin. He smells like skin. I want to lick him and I stick out my tongue tip, but he shifts his weight and says, “Now what?”

“Now we go,” I say and we go. Through dry winter weeds, under leafless trees. Over fences deflated like balloons to bounce under our feet. We both are wearing sneakers; we sneak. Some houses have slumped their shoulders. Heaps of bricks partially fill basements that have evolved into winter ponds, turtles asleep under the sediment of leaves. Where the garden walls turn and buckle, new vines have grown to smother like nets. Everything is brown and gray and white. A snow fell here last week and mostly melted but still skirts under some trees like tablecloths. A waft of smoke intercedes from a sinkhole in what was once the square corner of a tidy yard. We are running, no real reason why, and the son I want is out of breath. “Wait,” he says. “Where are we going?” The more his blood pumps, the more mottled he becomes. His sores stand out against his curdled milk skin. The places where new sores will erupt—already dense with pus—turn rosy as he pants.

He will follow me, I know, and so I do not stop but leap instead at the iron fence surrounding the cemetery. I get my toe in the crossbeam, vault myself over the top and down, thump, behind a sturdy headstone. The son I want does follow, even if a little clumsy over the top, and huddles beside me again. The grave is for Hannah, daughter and wife. Her dates were carved so long ago they’re buried under a matt of dense turf. “Metal,” says the son I want. “Slow down a minute. Let me catch my breath.”

Once, a long time ago, my Great Aunt Robin asked why I always wanted what I wasn’t supposed to want. She didn’t say it exhausted, like Textbook, or scared, like our father, but factual. Data collector, is GA Rob. Since she was the very first one who imagined an us like Textbook and me, I answered her. “If I wanted what I was supposed to want, I would have it,” I said. “And then what?” Now, the son I want grabs my elbow and pulls me toward him. His mouth is open like he wants to show me his tongue. He gets closer and shuts his eyes. I show his eyelids my teeth and jostle him until he opens his eyes again and looks where I point. The tour group is coming down 2nd Street, but is still in the distance. My father is at the head, walking backward down the slope in front of the group and gesturing in both directions at the not-so-much surrounding them. Toxicity is like that. Erasure is like that. Underground fire is like that. There’s not much to see until you get there.

“Okay,” he says. “We can go quick.” He hoists his sweatshirt with one hand. He fumbles at his zipper with the other. “I’ve never fucked in a graveyard before,” he says, conversationally.

“No,” I say. “That’s where we’re going” I take him by the chin and turn his head until he can see the pit. It’s rotten, muddled, hard to interpret. Not a hellmouth exactly but maybe hell’s pursed lips. Vegetation has been obliterated in a quarter-mile strip around its edge; sulfurous steam billows out of hundreds of fissures and holes in the mud. Dead trees, their trunks bleached white, lie in tangled heaps and stumps vent smoke through hollow centers. Here was a mine and then a landfill. Here the jumbled refuse of a thousand lives. Here the fires were set and snuck through the barriers into the deep, abandoned underground tunnels where they caught the coal seams and continue to burn. It’s been fifty years. It will be hundreds more. There are fissures, unexplored. There are caves where sulfur bubbles in stalactites shaped like toad’s eggs. There’s the pulsing heat, the slow twisting pressure of rock settling over its own charred veins. There is something, something I do not know but that I want and this son that I want will get it with me. Once we have it, will we be undone? Will we be transformed?

“Down there?” he asks. He grabs my hand as I pull forward. He holds it, uncertain. If we go now, no one will see us sprint across the dead zone. The tour group will stop well back from the edge. Like I said, this is only a day trip. The only thing we’ve brought for our client’s protection is the story we have to tell.

“Yes,” I say. “Come on,” I say, and then, remembering something Textbook told me, I add, “I’ll suck it.”

He hesitates still and I notice his eyes are brown. Like an animal’s eyes. Made for seeing not for flashing around. He is younger than me, maybe. I can see the place in his loose sweatpants where his penis has thickened, then slackened, and is now thickening again.

“Ok,” he says. I pull him up. He shakes his head, “Okay.”

And we go.

Over the dead zone.

Skirt a pocket of flames.

Hop over a hissing vent in the dirt.

Down the first slope, rubble, and scrabble.

Down the second slope, a plume of slick stinking mud.

He grabs my hand again and again I pull him forward. “Wait,” he says, but I am looking for the mouth, the socket, the pore, the quivering asshole that will let us in. “Hey,” he says. “I don’t even know your name.” But I see it now, I think I do, and I pull him after me as, slipping and sliding, we descend.

 

Sarah Blackman is the author of Hex: A Novel and Mother Box and Other Tales. Her poetry and prose has been published in a number of journals and magazines, including Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and American Poetry Review, among others. Blackman is the co–fiction editor of DIAGRAM and the founding editor of Crashtest. Director of Creative Writing at the Fine Arts Center, an arts-dedicated public high school, she lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with her partner, poet John Pursley III, and their two daughters.

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