A Nearness that Sustains

My wife’s hometown of Woodview, Pennsylvania lies an hour west of Centralia, a place we pass on the drive in from John F. Kennedy Airport. “It’s been on fire for over sixty years,” Amber explains. “Centralia is basically abandoned now…there are only five or six people left who refuse to leave. My parents used to tell me about it growing up.”

I glance over at the passenger’s seat, where she tucks her right foot beneath a leg and goes on. Out the window, a blur of dead trees flickers by. “They say it will continue to burn for at least another two hundred years.” 

“Christ, only in America,” I say, and she laughs. I will have to remember to look up Centralia when we arrive at her parents’ house. 

Amber is wearing a heavy black pea coat which covers the seven-month bump, and she rests her hands on her abdomen, where, inside, Liam kicks. She’s due in February.  

I have to keep my eyes on the road to avoid accidentally drifting into the left lane. I don’t drive much back in London, but muscle memory is real, and it can be fatal. Beyond the windshield, a light snow departs grey skies, coating the brown mountaintops. How appropriate for Christmas Eve. The weather should be charming, but this place is so unlike home. Sometimes it is hard to believe that Amber grew up in this world of hills, weeds, and jagged shrubbery, so far removed from our quaint flat on Frampton Street with its brick buildings, smooth pavement, and bustling passersby.

We will only be staying five days, just for Christmas, and then will fly home to spend New Year’s at Trafalgar Square. Amber takes these holidays in Woodview twice a year, and I accompany her whenever I can. This is the first time my in-laws will see her pregnant with Liam, and probably the last. She really shouldn’t be travelling after this.

By the time we reach Woodview, the snow becomes constant. Dense, wet flakes burst onto the windshield and glow eerily against the headlamps. It is past four in the afternoon, the sky already black. In the distance, I see string lights adorn the upstairs windows of her childhood home, a colonial structure settled on a quiet street corner. The large bulbs illuminate oversized shutters in warm festive colours, and I stare at the guest bedroom on the second floor, the room we call home for two weeks of the year. 

“Aww, they did a great job with the decorations,” Amber says, holding her hands together. The white siding and the wide porch are illuminated by cool blue icicle lights. A wreath has been carefully affixed to the front door. If I close my eyes, I can smell the pine from our rental car and hear “Jingle Bell Rock” playing in their living room. And, then I see them, my in-laws, two shadows, leaning against the porch railing in the darkness.

Amber will run into their arms. I will pull out the suitcases. 

Five days. Just five days, I tell myself.

We might not even need to unpack.

Expectations started the fire in Centralia. Expectations from the living. Expectations from the dead.

During a meeting in 1962, a councilman recommended that the town be made presentable for Memorial Day services and that the clean-up would begin with the stripping pit by the Odd Fellows Cemetery. The other council members agreed after imagining American Legion members on Memorial Day – just a few weeks away – marching from cemetery to cemetery in full military garb, their rifles raised, firing shots to honour the veterans lost in so many American wars. Then they thought of the garbage fumes wafting in from the landfill.

Three weeks later, on May 27th, the trash was lit on fire – a “controlled burn” – and the embers were extinguished. Or, so it seemed. Smoke resurfaced just days later, and the fire had to be put out again. And again. And again. And again. It always came back. Whatever water dowsed the flames was never enough. It was finally revealed that the fire had penetrated the pit and entered the mines, where flames fed off anthracite coal embedded into the Pennsylvanian topography. 

Underground, fire smouldered through the mines that once brought economic prosperity. Oxygen funnelled in through entryways, drainage tunnels, even the porous earth itself, providing breath to flames that would burn so hot, so bright, unseen and unfelt at first.

At night, prescient blues, reds, and yellows radiated from the old landfill. Two months later, the mines would be closed due to high carbon monoxide levels. The jobs gone. Thirty years later, when the cost to put out the mine fire exceeded the town’s value, Centralia itself would be abandoned.

This all started with expectations. Expectations for a Memorial Day service free of waste, of odour, of unpleasantries.

At what cost?

The house is immaculate, setting me on edge. I hug Amber’s plump mother, and I shake her father’s calloused hand. “It’s good to see you,” he says, adjusting his wireframe glasses. “We were both so sorry to hear about your father.”

I nod and carry the bags up to the guestroom. Amber’s parents call this a “guestroom,” but it’s really just her old bedroom, the walls adorned with whatever she was into back in college, before the study abroad program. Before me. I look at posters of Snow Patrol, The Killers, photos of friends she no longer calls on and family she rarely sees. Our flat is unlike this pink-painted patchwork of lost objects. Ours is minimalist. Bright whites and tidy greys. 

Amber touches my back, startling me. “Sorry,” she says and reaches for the suitcase in my hand. “God, it’s like an Applebee’s in here.” She points to her university pennants, pinned above a creaking dresser. 

I watch her remove a tattered copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting from the front pouch, the book’s floral colours faded by time and expectations. “I’m returning this to Mom before I forget. That ninth chapter is really getting to me.” A grin and a kiss on my cheek.

“Come downstairs and see the tree,” she says, stepping into the hall. “They got a real one this year.”

We will sit around it that evening, exchanging gifts. Amber did the shopping for us, as always. I mostly stay by the fire and watch the mess of thrown paper, ribbons, and bows. A holiday storm of discount electronics, oversized sweaters, and bargain cookbooks fly back and forth while the scent of a pungent gingerbread candle thickens the air.

Amber’s mother comes over, presenting me with a square-shaped gift wrapped in scenes from that Charlie Brown Christmas special they all seem to love a little too much.

I utter a thank you and carefully peel back the paper on a coffee table book, Pennsylvania: Stories from the Keystone State. My body sinks into the chair.

“For when you two settle here,” she says with a big smile, her cheeks red. “I thought it would be good for you to brush up.”

I flip through it, the stretched images of barren wilderness beckoning like some terrible purgatory on the horizon, my horizon. I thank her again. She is referencing the deal Amber and I made when she first moved to London, before marriage, before Liam. We agreed that we would live in London for ten years and then move to America. There are four years left in this deal – it’s hard to believe six have already passed – which would close before Liam even starts primary school.

There’s an issue with this arrangement: I never plan to leave London, not ever. 

And I know these tricks – the travel books, the knowing glances, the sly references to settling down – because I’ve used them all before on Amber. Getting her into rugby matches and sending her Lions merchandise, the excursions to Buckingham Palace, Shakespeare on the West End. She loves London, I know she does, and she loves me. We can love so many things all at once. 

Love and distance, though. I’m not sure they can co-exist. 

My visits to America with Amber are controlled burns. I think of this while flipping through the Stories from the Keystone State. I come back to the chapter on Centralia, to the black-and-white photos of a town frozen in time. 

When the mine fire burned to the centre of Centralia – after numerous failed attempts to stop the spread – it didn’t seem so bad to the residents, at least not at first. Snow no longer stuck to asphalt streets, and residents shared some mixture of bewilderment and joy when crops rose from the heated soil in the dead of winter. 

But then came the headaches. And not the bureaucratic kind from failed federal funding appeals to put out the fire. These were different. They came with drowsiness, confusion, and nausea. It was one thing for gases to seep out through the earth, but it was another to funnel directly into basements.

For a time, residents shared carbon-monoxide detectors, which were on backorder for months. Beeps sounded at all hours of the night. In many houses, windows were open twenty-four hours a day.

The red tape continued as proposed solution after proposed solution lacked logic, funding, or a combination of the two. Venting pipes lined the town like tombstones, new ones rising every week, spewing noxious fumes into the air. Highway pavement buckled and cracked. The fire was simply tolerated, until one Valentine’s Day in 1981, when a massive hole opened beneath twelve-year-old Todd Dombosky’s feet, and he fell right into it.

As the gift-giving nears its frenzied resolution, I can’t help thinking of my mother back in her home, alone this Christmas Eve, for the first time in her life. I toyed with the idea of skipping the trip altogether, but I knew what Amber would say, with those raised eyebrows and pursed lips: “I hope you’re joking. You see your mom every few days. I see mine twice a year.”

Before the flight, I stopped by to drop off a few presents. I kissed Mum on the cheek and told her to open the packages on Christmas Day, so she would have something to look forward to.

“I hate to ask, dear,” she said, as I reached for my coat, “but the damned tree won’t light.”

Why didn’t she tell me sooner? The house was not the same without Pa. He would have fixed this. I put my jacket back on the hook by the door. 

“It’s really time for a new tree with LED lights,” I said. “You’ll save loads on electricity, and they will be much brighter. This thing’s a fire hazard.” I was irritated not only by the crusty, dusty bulbs tangled within plastic limbs, but also by the ticking on my wrist reminding me of a jet plane on a cold tarmac, leaving in mere hours. 

With no other options, I peeled off the spare green bulb scotch taped at the end of the line and stuck it into each of the sockets, one at a time. One at a time. An arduous task, the kind my father would perform. Not me. 

There was dust everywhere. 

I think of my mother now, standing behind me, forever there, watching me plug in these bulbs, her back not what it once was, weight shifting, hand pressed against the door frame for breath and balance. She looked so thin and angular. So expectant, so hopeful. 

I continued on, eyes on my wristwatch. By the eighth or ninth bulb test, the entire thing burst into colour and my mother clasped her chest and exclaimed, “Oh, it’s lovely!” as I took a deep sigh. 

It was. It really was. 

I stood back and looked at this plastic thing, which glowed warmly, like a fire on its final embers. My parents must have purchased it in their early years of marriage, and she dragged it up out of the basement herself this year while Pa lay underground in the cemetery six miles up the hill. I put the dead bulb into my pocket and wished Mum a Happy Christmas and promised to call.

“Pardon me,” I say to Amber. Some embers in the fireplace pop, and I take leave. Her family probably thinks I’m in the toilet, but I’m back in the guestroom while they tend to their gifts, with my hand reaching deeply into a jacket pocket, fumbling for the burnt-out bulb to remind me of what else could be lost.

I can’t imagine what it was like for Todd Dombosky to fall into the hole. Or, maybe I can. He really should have died on that day, according to the Stories from the Keystone State. Todd was playing in his grandmother’s backyard when he spotted smoke billowing near a picket fence – a white, textured mist, like fog. Two steps forward and the ground opened beneath his feet. At first, he was just knee deep in a tar-like substance, but then the ground opened further and he slid into darkness. He reached, clawed, for anything to stop the descent into this hole that ran over one hundred meters deep and reached temperatures exceeding 350 degrees Celsius.

It was the root of a tree that saved him. Roots, and his cousin, Eric, who rushed over to pull him from the inferno. Minutes more in that hole, and Todd would have died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Or so the experts say. 

This was the kind of tangible news story that spurred change, change in the form of forty-two million dollars in government spending to get everyone out of Centralia. Shut it down, all of it. That seemed to be the consensus. 

Voices, opinions, and decisions lingered in the air like smoke for years ahead. I suspect they still whisper through the empty town today. 

“Honey, we’re gonna take the money and run.” 

“Of course the government is buying us all out. This way they can keep the coal for themselves. Ask Ned, he knows.”

“This is my home. I’m not leaving.”

“They’re paying more for this dump than it would ever sell for. Larry and I are gettin’ out, and you should do the same.”

“Alice, did you see what they did to the Cunningham’s house? Bulldozed right over it. Sad, really.”

“Where would we even go? We grew up here, Sally. You and me.”

“Harrisburg is an upgrade, I swear it. And, we’ll have cash left over for retirement.”

“The fumes are bullshit, Carol. They’ll say anything to get their greedy hands on our coal.”

“I love it here. I never plan to leave, not ever.”

The night before our flight’s departure, a storm hits Pennsylvania. In our twin bed, I watch the snowflakes out the window flicker past a streetlamp down the road in a haze like white noise on an old television set. I hold Amber close as gusts howl and the windows rattle in their frames. I think of that day so many months ago… the morning it rained in London, and I sat at our table, a hand over my eyes, saying, ‘my father died’ to a presence across the room standing in the doorway. Somehow, that felt like the beginning of this slide. 

Silence for so long. Silence, and the tapping of the raindrops. Then an arm around my hunched shoulders, a body against mine. Amber: warm and present. A nearness that sustained me.

I pull her close tonight and watch the hypnotic snowfall on the Pennsylvanian hillside. Somewhere downstairs, a clock on a mantel ticks. I can’t lose her. And I can’t move here. Can both be true? Love and distance. 

The following morning, I pull on a pair of gloves and help her father shovel us out. He pours gasoline into a snow blower and asks, “Any idea when you two will start looking at houses?” It cuts. “Let me know. I keep an eye on the market. Now’s a good time, even if you don’t move straight away.”

He pulls a rope, and the engine shakes to life, the ground rattling beneath my feet.

“We’ll see,” I shout over the pulsating clamour of the snow blower.


“I said we’ll see!”

“Let’s get it out of the garage.” His voice is loud, and the great machine lurches forward. “These fumes’ll kill you.”

He wheels the enormous metal device outside, and I stand back, wondering if the garage itself is still trembling, or if it’s me. 

The airplane also shakes that evening as I flip through the Stories from the Keystone State. Its black-and-white photographs are illuminated by the dim overhead light. 

We’re out. On the way to London, on our way home. I breathe clearly now.

The fasten seatbelt light turns back on as I look at the pictures of floods and fires. Of Johnstown, of Centralia.

“I think this is the most successful gift Mom has ever given,” Amber says, snapping her belt in. “Most of her gifts come from TJ Maxx.” 

“I keep thinking about all those people losing their homes,” I say, imagining the hole. “And for what?”

She shrugs and closes her eyes to the rhythmic bumps of the airliner. A flight attendant collects trash. I close the book and slide it beneath my seat. On the console before me, I tap on the navigational map showing our plane midway between Pennsylvania and London.

Love and distance.

I do not know it, but somewhere up in the cockpit, a new history book is being written, one involving the pop and hissing sounds heard by the co-pilot. From our seats in coach, we cannot smell the melting plastic, but we do see the lights go out and the oxygen masks burst from the ceiling like a child’s jack-in-the-box. 

Amber jolts awake, immediately holding her abdomen, Liam, as our bodies are pulled against the seats in a violent free fall, like those rollercoasters I used to ride with Pa while Mum watched from the ground. 

The source of this catastrophe will be a bit easier to unearth once investigators find the flight box among the floating debris and bodies in the Atlantic. Faulty wiring. Simple. It caused the insulation in the cockpit to catch fire, and the electrical systems failed shortly thereafter. The fire spread, like the controlled burn from a fire pit outside Centralia. 

Before the fire, the water, and the darkness – during this freefall – I think about our bodies being recovered. Where will they end up? Mine will be sent to my mother in London. Hers to Woodview, Pennsylvania, an hour west of Centralia. Liam, with her. Our son was always destined for America. 

For whatever minutes and seconds remain, Amber and I hold hands tightly in the darkness. Here, together. No family, no countries, no flags. Just us in this metal box. And for the first time since Pa died, it is as though nothing at all – not even a three-hundred-ton airliner crashing into the ocean at over nine-hundred kilometres-per-hour – could ever unclasp these hands.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash