We lived in a dying town in coal country Pennsylvania. Most of our restaurants had closed, Eddie’s corner store had shut down, and no one had bothered to change the deli meat specials at the grocery store in years. Our lone strip club, “Dangerous Curves,” abandoned, its sign in desperate need of paint—chipped yellow letters, the “s” in “Curves” sidewinding around the rest of the faded sign. It had closed so close to our eighteenth birthdays and we mourned the specters of naked women and hair metal. We would go there at night and Ryan would throw rocks through the windows and dare me to spray paint my initials on the walls.
We lived in a town of suffering widows. There were hardly any men left to fight over, so they made do with us. The deep mines had sustained our town for decades, but after the Knox Mine disaster in 1959, the Lackawanna Mining Company had shut them all down. Our fathers continued to scrape for work in Schuylkill County as the jobs dried up. Now, the only way underground was a coalmining tour.
My grandfather had committed suicide at the age of sixty-four. His lungs black, he complained that he was drowning. “My lungs—,” he would say between short breaths. “It feels like I’m getting my air from a Ziploc bag.” I imagined his lungs hanging like shredded curtains—cut up, as if from fiberglass. He choked every time he tried to suck in the air.
My father died nine years after my grandfather. Toward the end of his life, he smelled stale, looked at us through black-ringed eyes and gave one-word proclamations: Cancer. Beer. Dinner. Bed. His favorite bar, “The Coalminer’s Inn,” closed. Well…he said, leaving us to grasp at deeper meanings. He had always been short on words, preferring his vinyl records to everything else.
We had a wood-burning stove. During wintertime, I would sit in front of it for hours, tossing log after log into its small metal mouth. It was always hungry. I could feed it logs for the rest of my life and it would never be too many.
In the summer of ’96, Reverend Frank Graham’s booming voice was what finally broke Ryan. He was sick of hearing the reverend’s daily sermon about our sins, the sins of our fathers, and fire and brimstone. Ryan wanted to kill him or at least smack him across the face. I did too but one of us had to be reasonable. “Just ignore him,” I said to Ryan, when his face grew so red I thought he was going to choke on his cigarette.
I suppose Ryan needed someone to blame for his father’s death. While Ryan steamed over ways to punish the reverend, I concentrated on enjoying the summer. Kayaking on the lake, bonfires, DVDs with graphic sex scenes, fishing for largemouth bass, and shooting clay pigeons. I took out my newly laminated driver’s license and stared at it every single day. In my photo, I was scowling at the camera. It was how I looked in all the pictures I took that year. I felt strong, my t-shirt fitted to my torso. I imagined it was how my father looked when he was my age. I had developed a smoking habit, because I needed a reason to drive my ‘84 Toyota Camry to the gas station. I liked driving, and I liked having the freedom to come and go as I pleased. If we hadn’t found ways to busy ourselves that summer, I think our losses would have buried us.
Nobody had seen Reverend Graham in years and he no longer preached in our churches, but his radio program was always on. His voice reverberated through our dusty supermarket where our mothers took us shopping on hot Sunday afternoons, the air stale as the old bread we sometimes ate. At dinnertime, he would drift through our homes, his voice following us as we did our chores. He was a permanent guest. There were numbers to dial, checks to write to charities. Ryan refused to listen to anything else but the reverend. He was obsessed.
“Unbelievable,” he said, as we drove back from a cigarette run. “This guy is unbelievable.” I knew how Ryan felt. We were the ones in need of charity.
I was playing with the manual window of the Toyota, adjusting it so just the right amount of wind hit my face. I rested my fingers on top of the windowpane. The leaves from the trees whipped by us, and I was trying to hum some bars from “Wildflowers.” My father had introduced me to Petty’s greatest hits.
“He thinks we are all going to hell,” said Ryan. When he was mad, his eyes became electric, like a pinball machine lighting up. “All of these people are going to send him money and they think that if they listen for long enough, they get to go to heaven.”
“Sounds nice,” I said. I didn’t want to go to hell.
“We should find him,” said Ryan.
“Why?” I asked. “And then what?” I swerved slightly to the left to avoid a tire tread. I swerved again to miss a dead possum. Ryan had a habit of ignoring me when he didn’t like my questions.
“We’ll head to the radio station in Binghamton and see if he’s there. And if he ain’t there, we’ll find someone who knows.”
“Ok,” I said. It’s not like I had a girlfriend or anything better to do.
Ryan wanted to drive and I let him. He had grown more serious since the death of his father. His skin looked thinner, like it might flake off of his face if he scratched it. My mother didn’t like me spending so much time with him because she thought he was depressed, but I didn’t think he was any worse than anyone else.
Though I had listened to Graham my entire life, I couldn’t attach his voice to a breathing human being. He was like the Greek gods we learned about in ancient history class—real but not real. Ryan was concentrating on driving, and he told me to write down the religious messages from the billboards. I had the coloring books we had stolen from the Turkey Hill.
“All that matters is that you are keeping track of how crazy these religious nuts are.”
According to Ryan, everyone who believed in anything was insane. I alternated between red and green crayons.
Atheism Creates War
Evolution is a Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups
Keep Christ in Christmas
One Day Each of Us WILL Face God. Are You Prepared?
I was happy Ryan had included me. I liked being in motion, committed to the straight lines of the highway. A cigarette hanging limply from his mouth, ash dropping onto his lap, Ryan looked at me and said, “We got this.”
We hadn’t brought enough money for the trip, so we siphoned gas out of shiny cars at rusty gas stations with single pumps. We shoplifted Slim Jims and pigs’ feet and Skoal and Ritz crackers. We smoked Marlboros and we listened to that bastard on the radio the entire time. We went to that famous pie shop where Clinton ate cherry pie. We ran into coal miners who had known our fathers. They were men with graying beards and coffee-breath. They often picked up our checks, gap-toothed smiling men who told us the things we already knew about our fathers. They worked hard. They did the best they could. It was a shame that they were gone. Ryan accepted every free coffee and pie that came his way. “The world owes me interest,” he often said, parroting something I had heard from my own father.
“So we’re going to set his house on fire?” I asked. We were back on the road and I wanted to be sure. Ryan nodded, his dirty fingers gripping the wheel too tightly, as if he were afraid he would lose control of the car if he let up. “Give him the fire and brimstone he always promises us.”
Sometimes Graham’s voice would become fuzzy on the AM dials and we would have to hit the seek button, and the numbers would spin like a slot machine and more often than not, they would stop on a new station and Graham’s voice would be back. We imagined he was an alien who lived on all of the radio stations at once. It was just a matter of finding the right frequency.
Everyone knew who he was. Some loved his voice and some hated it. We had a magazine clipping from a profile of Graham’s life. In it, he was smiling and tan. He wore a collared white shirt and a blue blazer. His eyes were too big for his face and his nose was too small for his eyes. “See?” Ryan said. “He’s a pervert.” I had no idea what a pervert looked like but I could tell he had never done any real work in his life. He looked too scrubbed, like he spent all his time in water.
We stopped at Kate’s house. She had been my crush since second grade, but I had never sealed the deal. Ryan made fun of me for it, joking that I would die a virgin. I had once asked my dad’s advice on love, but he didn’t have any.
“Bless you guys,” Kate said, when we told her we were looking for Graham. She didn’t know what we were planning, and she thrust her rosary beads into my hand without waiting for an explanation. Her mother followed behind her with a Saint Christopher medallion and some clay shamrocks. “Good luck!” she yelled after us as we tore out of the driveway, kicking up dust and rocks.
We passed through a sea of billboards as we continued north. We passed one that said, And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. It was too many words for my taste, but I still wrote it down.
I asked Ryan what he thought it meant. He shrugged.
There were also billboards advertising McDonald’s and Arby’s. “Can we stop?” I asked. I wanted a coffee. It looked especially good on those billboards. Lots of steam and hot. Despite the dog-day August heat, I was feeling cold inside, and I thought a coffee might be exactly what I needed.
“Not yet. We still don’t know how to find the reverend.” The closer we got to the radio station, the less people seemed to know. Nobody knew where he lived or how to track him down.
As the sun was beginning to dip, we came to a graveyard. It was Ryan’s idea to stop. Some of the old stones had toppled. The guardhouse was empty and the windows were broken. Like many places in our town, the graveyard looked like it had been built on good intentions and it had fallen apart because no one was paid to take care of it.
There was a copy of The Purpose Driven Life on the top of one of the gravestones and Ryan ripped a page from it and rolled a joint. “This is my purpose,” he said, kicking the gravestone, taking a puff, and exhaling. It didn’t move.
“Why are you so aggro?” I asked.
“I’m not aggro, I’m just purpose-driven.” I couldn’t argue with that. There were so many things I didn’t get about Ryan. But he was my best friend and best friends don’t come around often. I enjoyed picking the seeds out from the bag so that Ryan could roll better joints. We were high most of the time.
Ryan bent down until he was eye-level with one of the graves. He read aloud the name: Jeremiah Ford 1938-1994. “Do you think Jeremiah thought he would die at fifty-six?” I didn’t know. I shrugged, though I wanted to say something profound about death and how it visits us all. I remained silent.
Ryan moved to the plot and read off the names of Ford’s family members. Rob, Dale, Kelly, and Rachel. “And how about them? Do you think they ever planned to die? What about my father? Or your father? Do you think they dreamed of being coalminers or dying coalminer deaths?”
I didn’t have any recollection of Ryan’s dad other than that he had the peaty smell of earth on him. He smelled exactly like my father and dead a few years longer. They were noisy men who worked underground. They liked digging and they liked each other.
My father had been gone two years now, and the longer between the present and his death, the harder it was to remember his face. He had brown eyes, just like me, and he squinted a lot. “My days are so dark, I have little use for these things,” he would say, pointing to his eyes. “Music is everything.”
He never cared for Reverend Graham. “If he had found music, he wouldn’t need all of those words,” my father said to me one dreary Sunday afternoon. “I feel sorry for him.” He often sat next to me on the couch and we watched football together.
He used to play a game with me. He would say, “Pick a song and try to find a musician who doesn’t sing about the seven sins.” Of course I failed. “All of us are sinners,” he would say. “We’re human. If God kept all the sinners out of heaven, it would be mighty lonely up there.” Then he would tilt his head back and look up at the sky, as if he could actually see all the way to heaven.
I thought about all the people who were buried beneath us. I wondered how many of them had been miners, how many of them had lived most of their days underground. Rather than imagining their bones or their rotted eyes, I focused on their voices. I imagined a chorus of the dead, all whispering their favorite rock and roll lyrics.
“This is Graham’s fault,” Ryan said, walking around the graves. I could tell he missed his father even more than I did. Ryan never cried, but he had gotten quieter after his father passed.
Back on the highway, Ryan resumed listening to Graham’s radio station. He turned it so loud that I could hear sharp crackles in between the reverend’s words. It sounded like paper tearing. Over the years, I had learned to tune it out; his cadence often washed over me, leaving me feeling wrung out and unsatisfied. I had given up on the meaning of his words.
Psalm 11:6: He will rain burning coals and sulfur on the wicked; a scorching wind will be their portion.
Then Graham would shout some variation of “Fire and brimstone!” It was his grand finale, he always ended up there, and he always warned us that our souls would not be saved if we refused to repent for our sins.
We arrived at the radio station in time for a scheduled tour. “You lucked out,” said our tour guide. He was wearing khakis and a shiny watch that sparkled in the light. He must have attended college. His teeth were too white and his pants looked tailored. “Call me Jimmie,” he said. We were the only people on the tour.
“Can we see the reverend?” asked Ryan.
“I’ve never seen the reverend,” replied Jimmie. He could tell by how we were looking at him that we were confused. “He doesn’t keep regular hours. He does his show whenever he is called by God to speak to the people.”
“But how is his show on every day?” I needed to know.
“Sometimes he records multiple shows. Sometimes we play old shows if we are out of new material.”
Jimmie brought us to the recording studio. It was a soundproof room with a bunch of microphones. There was chair pulled up to the mics and that was it.
“Do you know where he lives—his address?” asked Ryan. “It’s really important that we get ahold of him.” Jimmie shook his head. “Even if I did, we can’t give out employee contact information.”
Ryan looked exhausted. His eyes were bloodshot from the weed we had been smoking. There were a few nights when I had woken up and Ryan was already outside the tent, working on the fire or smoking. I wondered if he was sleeping at all. We walked outside onto the hot asphalt. There was no breeze and our clothes were sticky. We weren’t any closer to raining fire and brimstone. Can a person just be a voice?
As we were about to get into our car to leave, Jimmie came out with a scrap of paper and handed it to me. “I’m not supposed to do this, but I want to help you boys out. No one ever takes the tour. You all must be big fans. It’s his mother’s number. She’s his emergency contact.”
Ryan smiled for the first time all trip, flashing his stained teeth. “Huge fans.”
“Use my office phone,” said Jimmie. “I’ll give you some privacy for the call.”
Ryan called Graham’s mom and explained how we were big fans of her son’s radio show. We wanted to send some fan mail. It was surprising how quickly she gave us his address. We thanked Jimmie and practically ran out the door. We looked over our map from the glove compartment until we located the street. It was only forty-five minutes away. We went down some back roads past an old saw mill and a lone cow in a large field. We crossed a bridge and waved to some of the sleepy construction workers in orange hats and vests. The sun was high and everything seemed possible. After a week of tormenting ourselves with Graham’s voice, we were going to confront him.
When we arrived, the curtains were drawn and there was a Ford pickup parked in the drive. Two young girls were bouncing on a trampoline in the backyard. Their feet were dirty and they were smiling. There was an above ground pool. Outside was one of those fancy BBQs and there was the happy sizzle of steaks. An American flag fluttered in the soft breeze. The bumper sticker on the back of the truck said, “Proud to be an American.”
A canopy of trees shaded the house. For someone so famous, it didn’t look very impressive. It resembled a converted trailer with a garage. Ryan wanted to make sure that we had the right house before we set it on fire. We walked around to the front to see if we could glimpse the reverend. There was a large sign on the yard that said, “no trespassing.” Below the sign was the sketch of a fierce dog. We went around back and Ryan, in his most pleasing tone, said to the girls, “Is your father around?”
“I don’t know,” said one of the girls, with a shrug of her shoulders. She was wearing a pair of dirty shorts with tiny images of The Little Mermaid. The other girl had on a tank top and only her underwear. They looked healthy enough, but they didn’t seem like the kids of a famous radio personality.
“You sure this is the right place?” I asked Ryan as we walked back to the car to check the address I had written down in my coloring book: 815 Birch Drive. We compared it to the faded address on the mailbox. They matched.
Just then, a large bald-headed man appeared. He was wearing a NASCAR shirt with two cars and a ball of flame behind them. It said, “Get fired up!” He opened the door and walked toward us. I noticed how dirty his boots were. He trampled some branches, loudly snapping them.
“What you boys want?” I was terrified we were going to get shot.
“Is Frank Graham here?” asked Ryan. The man stared Ryan down.
“No one by that name, here. This is private property.”
“This 815 Birch? Do you know the reverend?”
The man was a mountain. He grew larger the closer he got to us. “Ain’t no one here named Frank Graham. Get off of my property. This is the last time I’m going to tell you.”
The girls were no longer bouncing on the trampoline. The only thing I could hear was the sizzle of the steaks. I half-dragged Ryan to the car. He had given me the keys, so I had to slowly back the car out of the drive to make sure I didn’t scrape it against trees or bottom out on the dirt driveway. If we busted our oil pan, I was convinced we weren’t going to make it out alive. Ryan gave me a pinch of Skoal. I packed it into my lip and felt the rush of tobacco. As we drove away, I thought about how little I knew of my father. He was nothing like the rock stars he loved. “It’s a different life for those guys,” he used to say. I never understood what he meant and then it was too late to ask him.
The week ended and we still hadn’t found Graham. His address wasn’t in any public records and the internet wasn’t like it is now. We returned home along the same familiar roads, passing abandoned farmhouses, grazing deer, and empty churches. There were more churches than residents now. When my father was still around, and drunk on whiskey, he became poetic. One time when he was drunker than normal, he shouted, “Churches are the broken promises of the earth.”
“Shut-up!” my mother yelled back at him. “We’re poor. It’s that simple.”
We arrived back in our dying town as the sun was dipping below the mountains, giving us a purple August sky. It was the end of our summer. I didn’t want it to be over, and I had no way of making it last. School was starting the next week.
“I think it’s time,” I said. “I’ve had enough.” But Ryan didn’t speak, he just nodded and turned up Reverend Graham. We had spent so much time together and we hadn’t accomplished anything. “I’ll drop you off at your place,” I said.
As the cancer advanced, there was a new slowness to him. His hair was falling out in places, and for the first time he looked old. I told God that even though he had ignored my other requests, if he did me this one favor, I would never ask for anything again. I sat and I prayed with him. I prayed for him. We listened to his records together.
The last night in the hospital, my father took off his wedding band and handed it to my mother. “I don’t need this anymore,” he said. “It was all a mistake.” I watched my mother accept it from him. I watched her hand snake across the bed and take it. I watched her small fist close around the gold band and she put her hand in her pocket. She stood there for a moment; I think she wanted to say something to him. The moment passed and she turned and walked out of the room. In the morning, he was gone. He left me his records.
I’m not sure if I did right by my father. Searching for the reverend was like putting a letter in a bottle and tossing it into the sea. Impossible to know if anyone ever opened it. My father was dead. Ryan’s father was dead. Our town was still dying. The coal was still there and no one was digging for it.
Alone for the first time in a week, I drove to the oldest church in our town. It was at the end of a dirt road, miles away from any other homes. We sometimes drank beers there, but no one prayed there anymore. I opened the trunk and took out the canister of gasoline. I checked to make sure the church was empty. The light was streaming on the pulpit from what should have been a skylight, but was just a hole in the roof. I splashed the empty wooden pews with gas. It made a “splash splash” sound as it came out. I took one of the Bibles and stuffed it in my bag as a memento. My father had taken me here only once. He wasn’t religious, but after he was diagnosed, he told me it couldn’t hurt. “Church is church,” he said. “I’m running out of ideas, and I ain’t quite ready.” I never knew how to respond. “At least we have all of this,” he said, spreading his arms to indicate our town.
I lit the match, and I tossed it—I knew it would happen quickly, so I didn’t stick around to watch. The heat was immediately intense. It was going to be a large fire. Back in the car, I turned off Graham. I rolled down the windows and I listened to the late-summer sounds of insects. I drove past yellowed “no trespassing” signs, beat-up fences, and rusty silos. Everything was familiar to me. It was dying, and I still loved it.
When I returned home, my mother was asleep on the couch, her thin legs draped with an old quilt, which looked ridiculous in August. The television was on and I turned it off. I put on my father’s favorite record, played it for the thousandth time. I listened to the familiar voice, accompanied by the wailing guitar, and the heart-searing lyrics. It sounded different, like how a word repeated over and over takes on a new meaning the more times you say it.