We live spitting distance from the coalmine fire of Centralia. Still burning. All that’s between it and us is forty miles farmland. By government orders that town is vacant now, sputtering smoke, hissing for attention. Idiot outsiders will go tag the place, not us. The asphalt’s hot beneath our shoes, prone to cave-ins. Might be walking one minute, roasting under the next. There but by the grace of God, our Mamas say. Our town is no better. The storefronts are closed; the houses are boarded. We live two, three generations a home. We keep fucking and birthing and testing our limits. Our town swells, then hollows with no life to show. Stillborn.
We have to find ways to pass time, us Matthews, Christophers, Jonathans. We soak our red gums in Skoal and hawk the muck at high school girls’ feet in convenience store lots beside our trucks and used Jettas. The girls machinegun stops and don’ts through helium giggles. Girls will be girls until they’re Ma’ams buying Pall Malls with change at the gas station. Or, until they’re whores/mothers, always demanding something. What else do girls want besides dick and cash and maybe some blow when they don’t have work in the morning? Used to be women were women and men were men, our grandfathers tell us. Don’t let them trap you. We know. It’s easy for a girl to say she don’t want it when really she do and vice versa. We have to be careful about things like that. Girls can ruin our lives with the right words. But our grandfathers don’t know, don’t have to deal with these girls – skin/eyes/curls soft like fleece, naked like lambs – swaying with appetite. Things a man goes to jail for.
Feels like every week we find another one of us dead – driving drunk or shooting bad H or cleaning our rifles. We try and laugh about it if we can. Didn’t we tell him, or, who gets his stuff? What else can we do when we hear the call on our radios and we already know? Above all the specifics (Was he streaked red or flat pale? Did he bloat or decay? Was his body stiff or mangled?), they become the same man. We can’t shake the shine of fresh violence composed too neatly, too fake. Don’t misunderstand – we ain’t scared. We’re angry. One of us is here and then they aren’t. Shouldn’t that mean more?
We assign the dead men elegies. Songs we say he loved. We tune and retune guitars. Learn some Queen or Zeppelin or Stevie Ray Vaughn. Play until the strings rip our calluses. Some glue the hard skin back on undeterred. Some quit for good. We know there’s no god, of course, obviously, what did you think? Still, we wear our saint medals under everything. When our girls uncover the round gold in backseats, woods, bathrooms, they kiss it to our chests. Their pity burns down to our sternums like shrapnel.
Sometimes we imagine Centralia’s furnace extends under us. It follows like a patient dog, panting (never nipping). We feel it best after dark. We hear its whistle when we stumble drunk with a crowd through the mountains, to that same spot we first had booze or weed or sex. We don’t go too far east, that’s where one of us was found – Mark? Mike? We lie down, sweating in the sour night. We want the ground to make space for us, to hear the rip of inferno. We want to warm ourselves.
Caitlyn GD lives, teaches, and rarely calls her parents in South Florida. Her recent work is featured in Gulf Coast online, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Voicemail Poems, among others. She tweets at @Caitlyn_GD.
–Art by Piotr Kaczmarek