A place where love never ends
The room had seafoam colored walls, and one window:
from it you could see the smoke. It was the middle of the day. I
was at the end of my rope. What is my name? Asked the man
in the hospital bed. John, I told him. No, he said.
The medical sheet said: John Fields (M) (74) (widow,
wife Dec.20.01) admitted to ICU 8/08 with general collapse/
delirium/high fever/amnesia/panic/unresponsive, tested
positive for proximity sickness (PCS) then transferred 8/23
down to Wd 5 for end of life care.
I brought this evidence to my obstinate father. He
found it distasteful. Get Gwen down here, he said. (Gwen was
not the name of my mother.) Gwen is dead, I answered.
He went back to sleep. Can you hear me? I asked. I
said, Gwen is dead.
He is there, in the bed. But he’s no longer all there.
Nothing: nothing new. The walls were pushing in.
Beyond those walls, the world was pushing in. This was the
hospital I was born in, I thought to myself. Not born: ripped.
Uncontaminated by the womb, like Athena. He opened his
eyes, asked again: What is my name? Zeus, I said.
I closed my eyes and saw red. The fluorescent lights in
that room wouldn’t allow for total darkness behind my eyelids.
I need the darkness, so I can go where I want to go. I
am 7. It is a day that holds the promise of summer. I know no
loss, no responsibility. I am reading a book so good that I do
not notice the ache in the back of my neck. I am sitting on the
sidewalk. Nearby, my brother bullies a smaller kid. I hear him
push that kid into the dirt.
The voice came from the man on television, the same
man as always:
The question is — how many more American lives are
we willing to risk?
I opened my eyes. The man on the television was in a
grey suit. He used to have robots that dropped packages
anywhere in the country. A corner store right up in the clouds.
Now, he has a lever which he moves, and bombs are dropped
far away. Over there, the eyes in the corner of the room that
watch you wherever you go. Those eyes follow the master
clock: the big eyes in the sky.
At the vending machine, my reflection over a row of Kit
Kat bars. I closed my eyes to stop seeing me. Money was a
worry in those days, as it was in all days. But I didn’t feel poor.
I didn’t feel much at all. Back in the seafoam room, my cheek
rested on cold steel. I stared at Zeus’ face, which warmed me.
Despite all present numbness, I was unable to totally mute my
rage. And yet I almost liked it, having someone to care for. It
made me feel like I belonged to someone.
Driving back home, the smoke loomed larger in the
October air. It came from the fire which has been burning for
more than a hundred years. The fire is underground, in the old
mine shafts that used to bring industry to Centralia. It rages
ceaselessly. Time is limitless in the fire, which has only grown
with attempts to put it out. It started in an act of
self-immolation, the kind of curse that can never be stopped.
Some tourists come to see the infinite flame, but most keep
their distance. The smoke poisons us, in this town of red and
grey. There is a crack in the sidewalk outside of my house, and
it looks like a finger pointing. I live in a town with no industry,
in a world with nothing new. It is the eleventh hour of a
declining empire.
Once home, I settled into myself. My beer, warm on my
tongue, had been sitting in my hand too long while I stared at
the wall. Tomorrow will be another day, I thought. And there
will be another one after that.
He bumped into me from behind. I spilled my drink
down my front. He said, Forgive me, and it sounded more like
a command than an apology. He said he noticed me from
across the room. A John Prine song was playing. It smelled of
must in there. This place is full of strange men, I thought, but
he is not one of them.
What’s your name? He asked. Rose Fields, I said.
Rose Fields (F) (25) average height and
weight/waitress in town/caretaker of her father, who does not
remember her/daughter of a deceased woman/sister of a man
who jumped into the fire.
He took my beer and finished it. He was fiddling with a
bottle cap. He had dirty fingernails. He noticed me noticing
them and curled his fingers into two self-conscious fists. I work
with cars, he explained.
So he was a mechanic, but he was also a painter. He
painted landscapes. The walls of his apartment, above the
repair shop, were covered in pastoral scenes. An acrylic
farmhouse perched on peeling yellow paint; asbestos lurking
Bill was kind, Bill was smart. He was good looking. His
forehead stuck out a bit. This gave him the effect of peeking
out from under a rock, and he often exaggerated this by
tucking his chin to his chest when he was listening. He had
too-big hands and a nose that curved a little on the way to its
final destination, just above his wide-set mouth. He had arms
full of tattoos, barbed wire around his biceps. I told him that I
worked at the diner off Route 89.
— If I come by tomorrow, will you be there?
— Yes. (yes, yes, yes,)
He left the bottle cap on the bar. I don’t know why: I
picked it up and surreptitiously folded it in my jean pocket. I
could still feel his charge on it. I stood up, put a bit of weight
on my legs. Fine (drunk).
My nine months with Bill were spent in a haze. I woke
up every morning waiting for the dream to end, because I’m
not used to having a nice thing. When the dream did end, later,
I regretted expecting it. Someone said, once, that the great
tragedy of life is we live our happiest moments unaware of how
significant they are. Not me: I knew how happy I was with him.
The tug in my stomach when he rang my door, the surrender:
happiness. It was as though I had met him long ago, as though
he had always been there, as though all my life there was a
room in my house for him, and he had the key.
Bill picked me up from work. He had a cream-colored
1972 Pontiac. I picked an eyelash off his cheek and said, Make
a wish. I put on my crown from my prom queen days. I fluffed
out my hair, I looked almost the same as the girl I was before.
He drove me out to the hospital on the edge of town, far
enough away from the fire that the doctors could treat those
who fell ill without getting infected themselves. He spent days
with me and Zeus. Against the red blind of the schoolhouse
wall, I see him leaning, waiting for me. He was always waiting
for me, seeing me, taking me places. We are driving and a
forest stretches ahead of us, as wide and deep as the sea. The
hum of a silver bird overhead; the click of the camera that
records each person driving in and out of town. We drove on a
road paved by poor immigrants, who were underpaid by the
robber barons, who live now in great steel cities and left towns
like ours years ago. We drove on a road that used to run
through Lenape territory.
I was in love, so I carved his name into a tree. Love kept
me here, in Centralia. But love could take me away, if he
wanted to.
— What was your dad like before he got sick?
— My dad: he used to like coming home, unbuckling
his shoes, and drinking just whiskey. It must have been a nice
feeling. An honest day’s work with your body, some hours to
But machines made him redundant. No one likes being
made redundant.
I told him everything there was to know about me. My
brain twisted to meet his, and I saw the world through his eyes.
His history was mine, and when we were intertwined, it wasn’t
so scary to laugh at the past. I closed my eyes and I saw them:
thin men, lined up, one-by-one. A French queen, imprisoned
by her husband for thirty years in a gilded cage. The small
child, the one with thick-lensed glasses and bug-like eyes, the
one who doesn’t speak much, the one whose mother is unkind
to her. The past is making fun of me. I know Bill was confused
by me, but he tried his best to understand.
Bill painted me in everything. I’m a wandering cloud.
I’m a puddle next to a pickup truck. He was unvarnished, and I
liked that. It’s what I liked about the world.
Mr. Randall is a pedophile. Mr. Randall is a strange
man. He’s just sort of funny, that’s all.
These are the things people said about Mr. Randall,
who lives down the street. He lives on the bad side of town, like
me. But we grew up accepted; warmed by the cloak provided
by titles such as working class, and war veteran. Mr. Randall
was a draft dodger who did not keep up his lawn, and lived on
Social Security money. You were scared of him when you were
a kid. His grass grew up to your waist, and he was always
wearing corduroys, even in the summer heat. He was
unpleasant looking and afraid of others, and he carried a foul
stench. Bill asked me about him, one day. I don’t know if he’s
as bad as all that, I said, But something about him does bother
me. In the bright and misleading sunshine of April we sat. The
mud was soft and warm between my toes, and my feet felt
stuck there.
It’s terrible, when you are a child, and you are only
there for other people. Your parents brought you here for their
own joy. You are at the mercy of adults, who do as they please.
And when you are very young, you are very lonely, so you
wander where you mustn’t.
I closed my eyes. I am 9. I have dirtied my special red
shoes, the ones my mom got for $2.99 at Salvation Army. The
neon green price tag on the sole has half-rubbed off. The grass
scratches my legs, the smell follows me out the door. I bike
away from danger and find refuge where I can. I land on my
knees, and my thin skin gives way. I bleed on the pavement, I
get gravol in the wounds. Doing as my mother tells me is
boring because it makes sense. To be wrong is to be daring. To
be daring is to go to the dark and mysterious castle at the end
of the street.
Bill had an idea one day, to get Zeus from the hospital
and take him to the hill in the forest we liked to go to, next to
the river that winds through town and starts here, under a
waterfall. On a high, peaceful, shady path, we laid with our
captive. He is happy, I thought. The orderlies will be upset with
us, but they know he will die soon. They will understand that
we wanted one nice day. There, on the hill, I saw the death
caps grow. They waved at me from the hilltop. He could die
now, with some dignity left, I think to myself. Dignity means
choosing. I looked at him and he looked at me, and I realized
he was in distress. He squinted in the sunlight. I don’t feel like
I belong here, he said, his old voice nervous and shaky: not like
him. I don’t know where to settle down anymore.
So we brought him back to the hospital. The sun
powered us as we carried him down the hill and into the
Pontiac. The sun warmed my back as I helped Bill lift my dad
into the back seat, next to his folded wheelchair. His two lame
legs were dangling out the side door. The sight of them
disgusted me. I pushed them in gently, and closed the door.
It matters to me if you think I’m beautiful. I said this to
Bill now that we were alone, and it was late. Because, I said, if
you are not judged to be beautiful, then you are not really
beautiful. I do not say this part out loud: If you are beautiful,
you get the prize — which is to be owned, which is to be
I told him about my mother dying. my brother losing
himself to the fire, my father losing himself in a different way.
As the outside world grew lonelier, my soul sunk into a deeper
fury. I was popular in high school, because I tried very hard to
be. Being picked on in elementary school leaves you with a
willingness to shape yourself later, to do as you can to fit in.
That willingness took root in me at an early age. I couldn’t
move if I tried.
It was midsummer then, and the pavement shined like
polished coal. There was no reprieve from the heat that
summer, even at night. It pressed on your neck. Bill stamped
out a cigarette with his worn brown boot. His crooked nose
glowed in the hum of the gas station.
Bill’s last thought was: What a nice evening.
Death came for him in the form of an eighteen-wheeler,
a drunk driver behind the helm. His body contoured to the
front grill upon impact. His embrace with the truck was
followed by an explosion, from the rusted gas pump behind
him. An explosion like a red mushroom, larger than any the
station attendant had seen. I know this because the station
attendant told me later, after he ran to the diner. His eyebrows
were singed from the heat and he told me: I saw the young
man’s body twist in the fire. He said he was coming to meet
I saw it, too: I saw it in the station attendant’s eyes.
Bill’s body burning bright. He lit up the pine trees surrounding
the old station.
But me: I was up the road, when it happened. My shift
was almost done. I looked at the clock once more: it is 11:48.
Almost time. I did not yet know that Bill was dead. I still felt
the happiness I had always longed for. I was thinking of a
wedding, of rice thrown on me as I descended the steps,
triumphant. I poured another cup of coffee for the old man
sitting alone, the one who is always sitting alone. I wiped my
brow. Then the door opened. Then I got the news.
His funeral was held later that week. They buried his
paintings in place of his body. In the summer, the fire spreads
its heat around the town. Something happens in the air
invisible. It’s best to stay out of the way. I wished I could have
burned with him — a widow giving sacrifice.
Now all the days are the same day. The hours move in
sluggish fashion, syrupy; the eight hour reluctant to reach the
ninth. My perennial loneliness, which throbs inside of me, will
not abate.
So now it is July, and life is stark in the dead heat. A
spotlight shines on me from above; I am barefoot on the
burning pavement. It is the morning of Independence Day.
Kids are lighting fireworks in the street. An alarm wakes me up
in the morning, and clocks chime all day long. A phone call
from the past, a bottle to help me sleep, and I no longer go to
the hospital. My father’s stuff is everywhere, my brothers’ stuff
is everywhere, my mother’s stuff is everywhere, there is just
too much stuff, and the stuffiness of it all is killing me. The sun
will die one day, and I cannot wait. The war my father fought,
the war that took all the men from this town, the war between
me and myself, they will all end one day. So I go out, and I
come home drunk.
On the way home, I stop at the store. I buy a carton of
cigarettes and another bottle of beer. I turn on the little silver
box in my house. No government announcement tonight. A
dead composer’s piano music fills all four corners of my small
clapboard house, the house I grew up in, just as he once filled
the halls of Budapest.
He was just so nice. It seems impossible that he could
die. The fact of death is obvious to no one, least of all me. A car
veers left, it runs into someone young and vital. And then he’s
not there anymore. If you wait long enough, everything
changes. Erosion, or a sudden act of God.
I am standing in a place I do not know. Beyond me I
know is the smoke, and I know there is the fire hidden
beneath. Imagine this: a woman loves a man, though he is not
real. He came from the fire, and the fire is where he goes to
after. He brings me here. I feel the flicks and beams in my
pelvis, as though a string is wound tightly around the pit in my
stomach, connecting me to something else. A thought enters
my head: I know this place. I’ve been here before. Another
thought enters my head: What am I doing here?
I walk home, back to my grey-bricked house, back to
my red door. My knuckles are white, my fists clenched, and I
sit on the steps that lead to my door, until the porchlight goes
back out. Just because you cannot see something does not
mean it is not there. My cold hands are on my chest, my
concave stomach, trying to feel for what I can not see.
We are all visitors here
The decaying taste of liquor on my tongue, the
sickening headache. I’m used to waking up this way. On my
couch. My shoes, still on. I take a shower and feel the hot water
rush over me. I throw up and watch it wash down the drain. I
feel the usual: tired, and a little bit anxious. I visit the seafoam
room. I take the man who has forgotten my name on a walk,
his last ever. The wheels of his chair squeak, and his shaved
head is bent.
I leave him. I go to the river and see how the sunlight
makes it bright. I stare directly at the sun until I have to close
my eyes: I see little red dots. I feel the sunlight run the length
of my spine; the length of the world. I climb the hill in the
forest and see the ruins of the mine in the quarry, see the
beautiful smoke in the distance. I see my loneliness in every
dusty ray of light.
In the diner, the old man sits alone. In his eyes are
dead people. A pile of bodies that could have been a pile of
rags. And the guards of the camp, with their hands in the air,
look so-well fed. That’s what the old man can’t forget: the
pudge of the guards; the roundness of their cheeks. The fat of
them was violence. He smells the coffee brewing. He salts the
egg I lay in front of him.
Sometimes, when I hold myself quietly, I feel the fire all
the way from here. I have felt it every day. Since the night I
drove to the hill and saw the smoke I have felt it. But I felt it
before, too. When I was a child. And even before that.
I can look out and see the other people behind their
picket fences. I can see the wind move the leaves. The fire is a
diode. It pushes against me gently, warmly. If I listen very
closely, I can hear it asking me how my day was.
How high up the sky is, how low down we are on Earth.
Ants that carry eight times our own weight. All watched over
by machines of loving grace. I have to be here for another three
hours. When I go home, I will throw my memories out. I will
wait for him on the porch to come back from the land of the
dead. I ask the man with the bodies in his eyes if he wants the
check. I wonder if he can smell the alcohol on my breath. Hello
Stranger is playing on the jukebox, and I see Bill in my mind. It
seems like a mighty long time, sings the voice in the corner. At
one table, a teenage couple argues. The boy leaves the table,
the girl tucks a piece of blue hair behind her ear.
I think about going outside for a cigarette break: it is a
nice evening out there. Good weather made me feel guilty. I
never should have grown up.
That’s when I see him: Bill.
He is leaning against his cream-colored Pontiac. The
light from the diner bleeds out the windows and casts a red
spotlight on him. Bill! I shout, I press my hand against the
glass of the window, and he doesn’t turn his head. Can he hear
me? Can he see me?
The bottle cap jumps in my apron pocket. I leave the
diner, coffee pot still in hand. I approach the visage.
He looks at me like he knows me. Like he has been
waiting for me.
He looks like Bill, but not. Same crooked nose, same
overhanging forehead. Same, same, but different. His
fingernails are clean. The sight of them makes something stir
in my stomach. When he is still, he could be a painting of Bill,
but then he moves: extending his arm towards me. For a
moment he looks like a mechanical figure in a carnival ride,
reaching for you in the funhouse. His expression is vacant, but
when he looks at me, his eyes are sharp: like two high beams,
frozen on my face.
It lasts a moment. But then, he is back to being Bill. He
— Do you know me?
— Yes, I say.
— Where am I?
— Centralia.
— Have I always been here?
The silence between us stretches thin, so I cut it.
— You look just like him, I say. You look like my
boyfriend, who died.
— Am I him?
Bill’s musky smell isn’t there. This one smells vaguely
like gas.
— No.
I remember something I heard on the radio this
morning. The man who is usually on television says: there is
glory in serving your country. In death, you live forever.
— Did you know that? I ask the visage.
— Did I know what?
— There is going to be another draft. They had said there
wouldn’t be.
He looks at me. He asks me if I wanted to go for a drive,
so I say yes (yes, yes, yes,) and I do not go back in to work. I
take the coffee pot with me. I leave behind me the old man
waiting on his check, the man with dead bodies in his eyes,
who is staring at his untouched egg. In America, who starves?
So fast and sharp the turns in the road, so cool and
deep the grass we lay in. We are on the hill he and I used to sit
on, where we once took Zeus. Everything changes, but not for
me. I have made an unintentional return: I am back at this
place again. I push his sleeves up, to feel his skin (proof). It is
hot: like marble in a shadeless courtyard. There are no tattoos.
It is as though his skin was manufactured yesterday. So, not
Bill, then. But someone like him. Someone just like him. I feel
like I’m wearing hand-me-downs, he says.
Now I am holding him, now he is emanating heat. He is
like a furnace. The lethargy has subsided. Now, I have energy
flowing through my veins. Better the devil you know, then the
devil you don’t. My mother used to say that. His solid hand
covers my hand and a shiver shoots down my spine.
I woke up this morning and a thought came to my
head: I am losing my grip in this slippery world.
I make myself a bowl of cereal, which I do not eat. I
make myself coffee, which I do drink. Did I dream him up? I
look outside and his car is gone: there is no proof.
I put on my shoes and I walk the planned streets of
Centralia, cracked pavement, over the bridge that crosses the
river, until I get to the highway that would take me somewhere
else, if I let it. I am a vagrant: trucks barrel by in the
unforgiving sun.
Before I know it, I am near the fire. Flickers of cold
blue, sparkling violet. The fire talks to me. He is here too, the
visage. Leaning against his car again. What is my name? He
asks. I tell him: Bill. Because I want it to be so.
We drive away together. We stop at an antique shop,
we are on a date.
In the shop, run by a decrepit man, armchairs are
crammed next to backgammon boards. There is barely any
room to move. There is a painting. It is of a woman. She has
dark hair and eyes, and she stares at Bill. She is reclined, she is
challenging. She is wearing a long, sheer gown, with lilac
ribbons around her ribcage and arms. And he studies the
painting, like one seeing the sky for the very first time. And he
looks at me, like I am being seen for the very first time.
Did he come from the West? Was there a town full of
them somewhere: the same sandy hair, the same
wide-brimmed smile? Were they made just for me, in a factory
called desire? One comes out on the conveyor belt: he likes to
paint. The next one now: what does he like?
He studies. I give him a book, and he reads next to me.
He perceives as I do, and I mould him as I would a child. My
love is something you can learn from. Centralia was built on a
giant pit of dead: the people who were killed to make way for
us. And we just added more dead. The burning miners. The
army vets who died with holes in their arms. The bored young
kids who snort and ingest. And those who jump into the fire:
their ghosts linger on. It’s the proximity to an energy source,
says the scientists on television, it turns some folk insane.
You’d have to be insane to stay here. The dead outnumber the
living a thousand to one.
Now you can never leave me, I say. He says, I don’t
know where I was before this.
Slowly the pattern of our days grows together, and
shapes itself into something like love. Foxgloves flutter prettily
in the breeze. If something is there to be touched, there is
something to be picked apart.
A memory shoots through me, like something running
through my veins. He is walking through my mind, the scary
man from down the street. The witch in the forest who cooked
me into a pie. I can feel his wormy hands closing in around my
wrists. I stop the movie by banging my head against the wall. I
look in the mirror and see a red trickle down my forehead. I
tell the man who I now know to be Bill about my childhood,
and I am more honest this time. The shame of our poverty, my
father’s war wounds, the plenty that is America, that feels just
out of reach. The fire that we never left, the lawsuit money we
never took. It was dirty money, said my parents. It was money
that betrayed the town. But they were already gone by then.
I go to the fire again, which I have come to see as my
home. I can stop thinking when I feel the warmth. Bill meets
me here, we hold hands. He drops me off at the hospital some
days: how kind. The orderlies look at me with shock. Does my
happiness show on my face? I rearrange my features: surely it
is impolite to be so in love when one’s own father is ailing. I sit
in the seafoam room. The day turns to dark. I see my face in
the reflection of the black window. I am covered in dirt, and
blood. My knees are skinned, and there are twigs in my hair. I
do not know the look in my eyes.
I can spend more time with Bill, now that I have
stopped going to work. One afternoon, we are sitting and
watching television, and a commercial for Buddy Wilson’s Car
Dealership comes on. Bright color flashes on the screen. This
man sitting next to me, his face thin with anger, takes my drink
from my hand and throws it at the television, and the glass
pierces the screen right over a shiny red car. Now the screen is
black and white fuzz, a thousand ants marching across a town
square. That’s not like you, Bill. He looks confused, like he is
unsure of why he did what he did. I get up and clean the mess.
The crooked nose is proof. The fall of his feet as he
steps down my driveway is proof. The space between me and
him, between here and there: proof. He was there, there I was.
I stop going outside, unless it is to drive to the fire, or buy
more liquor. I am drinking more now. Tired.
I tell my body to get up and it almost answers. The
government announcement came from the little silver box, the
radio we can’t throw away: they would know, they would find
you, they would fine you, and they would replace the disposed
with another radio. The man’s voice was saying things such as:
the necessity of war. What is the worth of one human life?
They say that when the accident happened, when the
fire was lit, there were plans to rescue the three hundred
trapped miners.
But it was too expensive for the company to do. Not
worth it. Worth.
When the man who was once my father got sick, he
spoke of my mother, who had died a year prior. He spoke of
the affairs he had, and he spoke of my brother.
By the time the sickness had taken hold of him, his eyes
were iced over. He stopped speaking out loud. How do I know
when I’m dead?
I come to: I am still sitting on my couch. There is blood
on my hands, glass in my palms.
Bill is gone now, but I know where. And I know why.
I am 17. I am lying in a field of daisies. The cotton
fabric rolls down my thighs and sits at my ankles. I am rolling
my thumb under my dress and I want Bill to see me, but I do
not know him yet.
I am 8, I am 9. I take my rusty red bicycle and I go out
to the farmland, way out West of town. The road leading there
is poor indeed, rocky and wide. I cannot wait to grow up.
I climb and sit on a wooden fence, my arms hooked
over and my chin resting on the higher piece of wood, my seat
the lower piece of wood, my legs dangling, my feet touching
the tips of the tall dewey grass. A little red house in the far
distance, like the kind you see in vision tests. Four sheep
A hum brings my eyes up to the sky: seven silver
drones, in a V-formation, mimicking migrating birds.
Dropping packages, dropping bombs.
I no longer feel that I know time.
The beast had lost its eyes
The man who was once my father is now dead. No one
was by his side when it happened.
His funeral is small, the attendees three. I stand far
away, where I cannot contaminate the still living (the still
sane). A quick tug pulls me closer, just a step, and I think very
seriously of running to the scene and throwing myself on top of
the casket with him. A small voice inside of me, a voice that
used to be my own, says that I have long started my descent,
have begun to follow my father to the same inevitable
conclusion. I will not allow myself to die that way. After this,
the voice is gone completely, and I belong to something else.
He goes to Valhalla. I will dine with Freya in the
heavenly fields. The flowers suddenly are blooming, very
quickly, and I realize I have been standing here for eight days,
facing the fire. That is where I need to go. On the ninth day, I
walk towards the sound of Bill’s voice. I know my way in the
darkness and in the light.
Bill is here, he has been waiting for me. He is leaning
against his car. He will keep watch. I wave at him, and he
waves back.
Those who jump into the fire are all lined up. We all
knew to come today. These people came from all across the
country, they felt the siren call of loneliness, the warmth the
fire has. I see Mr. Burns from the supermarket, who used to
sell me sweet apples. He has felt the tug, too. I wait my turn.
Pick me. Pick the easy one, the sad one, the drunk one, the
low-hanging fruit.
One by one, they jump in ahead of me. There is always
a pause, and then a scream. I am getting close to the edge.
Clouds of carbon swirl up around us and enclose us in
monstrous shapes. Some people come to see the fire, out of
curiosity. Some turn around: their eyes like pebbles, dull and
black. But no one who gets this close walks away.
The man in front of me is next. He stays still for a very
long time. Then, like his body is being wrenched from its
standing place, he throws himself in. Now, it is my turn. Now,
it is all about me.
How pretty it looks, up close. The sun, that big warm
beast who powers the world, rising over the fire pit. Hues of
copper dance over the roiling flames. A great hum surrounds
me, enveloping me like a blanket. I do not quite remember
how I got here. I feel, suddenly, that I am 8, and I am lost at
the fair. Took too long at the fair. Who took her home, that
little girl? There was Mr. Randall. His interest was piqued,
though she did not know it. Did he take her home? He was
nice. Wasn’t he? And before me, in the flames, I see the whole
world burning. There are the Salem witches. There are the
Hindu widows. There are the Buddhist monks in Vietnam,
screaming in their orange cloaks. There are some things that
are better kept secret. Hints of sinister and violent mysteries:
the death of the whole world lies in there. There is an old ship,
with an empty hull. There is Father Ignacius, with a body in his
hands, burning with a century-and-a-half of Catholic guilt.
They are all withering in the fire, full-bodied. There is my
brother, he is ringing his bell, biking through the fire, he is
only a child. There is my mother, there is my father. There are
the boys who were sent to war before they even thought about
love, or anything else. These being dead, I think, then dead too
I must be. And there I am, I am 8, I am 9, in the fire, dirt on
my knees, wiping my mouth, like the cat that got the cream. It
is revolting. I scream, and the scream sounds like it is coming
from very far away. My front is hot but my back is cold, and I
have a crawling, unsafe sensation. There is something big and
wide, staring at my unprotected back. Someone says,
somewhere, There is freedom to giving in. Sometimes you get
tired of the turning world. Warm little fingers curl on my
shoulder blades, asking me to come in. So I say, I will. Yes, the
fire says. And I say yes, yes, yes,
You want to live forever, you want to sit in the
passenger seat of a shiny convertible and see the great big
highway in front of you, you want to climb a bridge that keeps
going higher and higher, into the sky, into the clouds, all the
way up to Mount Olympus. I see God in the fire, and he talks
back to me. I’ll cut my hair for you, I’ll be who you want me to
be. I’ll follow you into the fire. Is that what you want? Are you
feeling okay? says my mother. We lost you. Where did you go?
I’m feeling fine, I say. I yearn, I hunger, I thirst, I want, I need,
I please. Have you been a good girl? Yes, I’m how you said I
should be. I look down and see my red shoes. I have red shoes,
I say softly. It is the last thing I say. A big push comes from
behind, or maybe it is a pull from the front. And I feel terror,
but then: euphoria. Not my house; a stranger’s house I leave
behind. As far as I can remember, there is no place other than

Charlotte Graham is a social worker who also writes.