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