Ari Moskowitz
My Father Left Me a Dying Town

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