Errata Literary Magazine
Bucks County Writers Workshop
Centralia by David Jarret
Buildings burn from the inside out in the town of Centralia. The cellar beams smolder, the floor turns red hot, and the place fills up with smoke and flame. You run outside choking and when you get to the street, you feel how hot the pavement is and the monster underground melts your sneakers and blisters your soles as the asphalt turns to gum.
A permanent rubble of smashed bricks, broken glass, and charred clapboards has been lying in the street for so long now the highway department has painted yellow traffic lines around the heaps. The Centralia Fire Department lies there; its cracked lintel proudly etched with shields and the letters, "C.F.D." Centralia High School has spilled out onto the street next to it, and Anthracite Furniture and Appliance is strewn beside the school. You think since they went to the trouble to even paint the lines somebody dares to believe there is still hope. Luck is rare and miracles are scarcer than rare in Centralia.
Today you are in the hot nave of St. Stan's Church with six ancient holdouts. The air inside is sweltering from the mine fire below, and the old ones choke and gag from the dry heat. The sounds are not little polite throat-clearing coughs but the long, emphatic retches and gasps you would hear from a chain smoker or a coal miner.
You are here with the others because there is no way out. You chant a few lines with them from a hymn Father Demetrius used to sing long ago. Smoke is billowing up off the floor and you keep a nervous eye on it. It can't be long now. The familiar white haze gathers and begins to rise like a curtain about the altar. You think the curtain should be going down, not up. Tears dampen the faces of three women who are wearing scarves and clutching rosaries.
There is no Father Demetrius any more, only Nate Probolowsky who is trying to get the small assembly to finish the hymn. "Hurry up," he pleads, "I smell smoke. Feel the heat? Folks, it's gonna go!" You shuffle outside and look back at the tall steeple and think it will be a miracle if it has not toppled by this time tomorrow.
Lou Roseto, a guy you know from the coal mine stands in a doorway across the street. He is downing a beer. "Hey, Lou!" you yell. He points the bottle at you in a salute.
"Whaddya say," he shouts back.
You wonder if the fire really did start in Jimmy Taggart's dump a couple of dozen years ago like those scientists from Penn State said? The fire turned underground and nobody could put it out. You remember when the government came into Centralia to try, but it had taken hold in hundreds of secret and dark places, squeezing into tiny crevices with its ceaseless appetite for coal. If you could see beneath the soil, the angry fire would look like cancer with its orange and red tentacles grabbing hold of the town, and eating it from the inside out. Years ago you watched the g-men try to seal off the oxygen, but the fire merely breathed from a niche a hundred feet away. Eventually they just gave up and let it burn.
"C'mon over, Lou!" you holler. You watch as he steps out into the street throwing his empty bottle against a wall. It shatters into curved glass shards on the sidewalk. Lou staggers across, crunching on the glass and swinging his arms like an ape.
"What's goin' on, goofball?" he says with his beer breath. He wipes his hands on his yellow jacket.
"What do you think, Lou? Nothing. St. Stan's is going up today."
"Today? Let's have some fun," he says.
"Could use a little fun. How much is it gonna cost?" You jingle the coins in your pocket.
"It cost nothing, you moron." His mouth stretches into a great big empty smile, a smile so wide because there are no teeth that get in the way.
"Let's go over to the phone booth on the corner," Lou says, scratching his stubbled chin.
You walk over with Lou and squeeze inside. He dials three numbers and tilts the receiver so you can hear a voice. "911 Emergency," a sweet sounding young thing answers.
"Yup, I got an emergency honey," Lou says.
"Please state the nature of your emergency, sir."
"There is a building on fire. It's St. Stan's Church on Main Street."
"Can you tell me the address sir?" she asks, her voice anxious as if this call could be her break into the big time.
"Main Street. Don't have no number. There's flames comin' out the windows and the roof."
"The address, sir. Please tell me the street number and city."
"I'm not sure if there's people inside, young lady, but I hear screams." He nudges you with his elbow. You get it and step outside.
"Help, help! I'm on fire!" you howl in a high-pitched voice. You stick your head back inside to listen.
"I am calling you from Centralia, Miss," Lou says, his voice grave. "A building on Main Street's on fire. Send help at once!" he screams at her, crossing his eyes as he looks into the receiver as if he were trying to see her through the telephone.
"Centralia?" you hear her ask, her voice wilting.
"That's right Miss, Centralia."
"Uh...uh...I have a rescue crew available, but it cannot go to Centralia," she says in a voice heavy with disappointment.
"And why not?" he asks, innocent as a spring lamb.
"Well, uh...that town's gone. Closed up. There may be a fire all right, sir, but that happens all the time. Uh...this is either a prank call or you're new to the area. Just let it burn out, sir, and keep away. Centralia's a dead town, a ghost town. Only a couple of people left that won't leave, sir."
"Seven, to be exact, Miss."
"Well, seven it is, and they should know better. Normally we would send a crew out sir. You're sure it's in Centralia and not...Sugar Notch?"
"Nothing ever burns down in Sugar Notch. Lucky for you my friend got the lady out before she burned up," Lou says in a solemn tone, and looks across the street at smoky St. Stan's.
"Just let it burn, sir. And you and your friend shouldn't be there either. It's unsafe. They've got just about everybody out now. Except for a few stubborn..." He laughs and hangs up.
"What's so funny about that?" you ask.
"Just to hear them fight themselves not to come. Every time they answer the phone, they have to get the cops or the fire engines, or help with some stupid emergency, you know? Jesus!" Lou walks out of the booth and fingers out a cigarette. He searches his pockets for a match and squeezes his crotch. "Gotta piss," he mutters, "...the beer." He is dancing in front of you.
"Got a match?"
"Yeah, your face and..."
"Watch it," he growls, giving you the finger.
"Do you got a light for this here butt?" he begs you, pursing his lips together and pointing at his cigarette with one finger.
"I do not have a light for that there butt."
You look up at the sound of breaking glass. A window suddenly pops out of the church, falling ten feet down to the ground in a crash. St. Stan's is glowing red inside. You see it through the empty window frame. Fire laps out at the brick wall. "Things look like they is getting hot. A light for my butt," he says, and he is off.
"No, Lou! Come back. I'll get you some matches, you idiot." The fire is too hot, so you don't chase him. You watch him get close to the burning church, holding his face out to the flames boiling out of the window, trying to kiss the fire. "No, Lou," you mutter. "Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus." All at once, a terrific crack peals out of the church, and you look up as the slate roof parts way, the wall splits open and falls in slow motion.
The whole side; bricks, stained glass windows, and roofing slate engulfs Lou in one smoking flash; exploding like a tidal wave out onto the street, swarming a beige Oldsmobile that hasn't moved in a year. Shit. The stupid son of a bitch is dead. You rub your eyes, squinting through the heat. That's it; he's dead. You look where you last saw him trying to get a light. There! There's that idiot.
"Help," he croaks, squatting with his arms over his head as if that posture would protect him from thirty tons of bricks and shingles raining down upon him. He coughs in a long spasm, heard a million times in Centralia in the old days.
"I can see ya, you idiot," you yell back with relief.
"Get me out of here, you big goofball; you nut," he pleads, trying to scream, his voice hoarse, desperate to take a piss, and squeezing himself with both hands now. You would have just wet your pants. You close in, trying to pick a safe trail through the fire and brimstone. Ragged chunks of scorched brick wall lie on the sidewalk.
"Jesus, Lou! How did you make it through that?" you ask, grabbing his collar and dragging him back. You look back and see the inside of the church exposed in a lurid way, in a way God surely never intended. The rest of the ceiling rumbles and without the wall for support, looks ready to go next. Lou, cut up and filthy, stumbles a few feet and stops. You look around the front of him and see him pissing, sizzling on a little fire burning on the sidewalk. His butt is lit.
"I think the busted out window must've fell right over me...oooh," he said finishing his piss in a spasm. Lou shakes then zips up, and takes a drag on his hard won cigarette. "But I made it. Jesus. I'm doin' my part to help with the fire. Ha! You know something ya big moron, I'm parched. How about we walk over to Dewey's for a beer." You think it over. Dewey's is a little tavern over in the town of Sugar Notch, about a half a mile away. You make the hike almost everyday now, since the Near to Beer and the Stumble Inn have both closed.
"You got any money?" you ask, like it is the most natural question in the world.
"Money!" he laughs. His pink gums look ridiculous against his filthy face. "Who can think of money at a time like this? Only want one goddamn beer!"
You look at the pleading furrows on his soot-smeared face and where the fire has burned his yellow jacket you see the fabric is still smoldering. You clap your hand onto his shoulder and make up your mind. "You can wash your face there."
"Yeah, I'll wash my face in beers!"
"One friggin' beer, Lou. That's it." And there is his smile again, a smile as wide as the highway, and he puts his arm over your shoulders and you toddle toward Dewey's. He tightens his grip either for you to help him, or out of friendship; you're not sure which. You slip your hand into your pocket to jingle the coins there and smile back, because you saw the most rare of scenes, a miracle in Centralia.