national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010


Keep Off the Dunes, Joseph Gaboff

My wife and I, we’re the only ones left. Everyone tells us we’re stubborn, but the thing is, we just like it here. We think it’s a lot like outer space because we don’t have to make many decisions except to float around our house and make tea together. Our friends have stopped calling us because they died. My wife and I are okay with this because we have always thought of ourselves as close to death. We have grown up close to things that fall away.

We live in a town called Colorado except it’s in Pennsylvania. The funny thing about our town is that we are the only people left in it. There used to be a lot of people back in the ‘50s, but then the mine fires happened. I was just a boy when they started. My pop worked the mines with the Poles and the Germans and the Slavs and when he came home at night the insides of his nostrils were black and my mother would say, “Alfred McCann, what will we do with that nose of yours?” My father would laugh because on top of having a black nose on the inside, his nose was very big on the outside. Then he’d pretend to honk his nose at my brother and me and we’d laugh, and then my mother would bring over the potatoes.

But that was a long time ago, like I said, before the mine fires. Colorado rests on an enormous bed of coal. Everyone who used to live here worked the mines, but something happened one day–no one knows how it started—and one mine caught on fire. The coal didn’t stop burning. The fire kept spreading to more and more mines and it couldn’t be put out, and then no one could work the mines because of the fire. The fires burned through to a thick layer of earth, and steam rose from vents in the ground all the time. My pop found work in the next town over but we couldn’t afford to move. Meanwhile, we pretended that our house was on solid ground.

The earth in Colorado changed a lot the year the fire started. The steam was always rising up from the ground in white columns and it smelled like sulfur and old water. The grass died because the earth was too hot. Moss grew over it. Warm moss, it was everywhere. My friends and I would scoop clumps of it and throw it at each other after school behind the church. There was this bully, the son of a Pole, and he would stuff the moss in our mouths if we called him a Polack, or something like that. After some time, the trees died too. They had only remained standing for so long because they had stubborn roots. We all had stubborn roots.

Our town was built outward from one road. On the main road there was a hardware store and a diner and a grocery store, not much else. Beyond the store were our houses. One street. It continued into the next town over. Most people who drove on that road were just passing through.

Then the cave-ins started happening on the road. They happened because the earth under the road became weak from the fire burning away below it. The road would cave in, forming a huge sort of pothole, and the driver would get his car stuck in it. The town would call the tow truck. We would all come out of our houses and stand on the side of the road and watch. The driver always got hurt, but no one ever died. The most common injury was a bloody nose. One time a car full of Poles got stuck in the ditch and a few of them came out with bloody noses, and they all wiped their noses but then the blood just dripped down their arms, and they looked worse. At the final moment when the tow truck raised the car from the ditch, the old people would bless themselves with their rosaries and the children would clap and the rest of the adults would say, My, it’s a good thing nothing worse happened.

The cave-ins started to happen to people’s homes. I heard that a cave-in happened in Benny McGinley’s cellar, and that the hole was three feet wide and one foot deep. The kids said he turned it into an indoor sandbox. But shortly after, he and his family moved away. Other houses started to lean to one side because of the cave-ins. Many people left town, but my pop was a man of principle and he thought that someday he would go back to the mines with his thermos and come home at dark, like he used to. Meanwhile, our porch developed a slope.

Once I asked my pop why we didn’t move. He said to me, Alfred—that’s my name too—Alfred, you’ll understand some day when you’re old and you make your own home somewhere.

There’s something else I should explain before I go any further. The ground here is always, always warm. Even though it comes from the fire many layers below, it is a pleasant kind of warm, like the feeling of a radiator when you first turn it on. If you stand in one place for a long time, your feet get warm from the heat. It’s sort of like putting on a pair of socks fresh from the dryer. That’s how it feels, at least on your skin. But it feels very different in your mind.

So this explains why the first time I ever made love, it was on a bed of moss out behind the Mann’s barn. I was 16 and she was 16 and we were taking a stroll because neither of us could decide on what else to do in town. We ended up on the Mann’s property, really isolated, behind the barn. There was a pristine little patch of moss and we sat down on it. It was autumn and the air was chill so we lay down on the moss to get warm. She told me that she wanted to leave town and be a reporter, something like that. I was in love with her and all I could think was, Nothing matters right now, nothing matters right now, nothing matters right now. I forgot all about my pop being sick and the dead trees and the brokenness of all the houses in town. Before you know it, we were kissing and I was so nervous and warm that I couldn’t think straight.

When it was over, we lay naked on the moss for a few minutes, feeling the heat on our backs and the chill air on our chests. We never admitted it to each other, but I know we had both been virgins until then. She looked onto the steam coming out of the ground (or was it our bodies?) and I plucked a piece of moss from her hair. She touched my hand and told me it was warm. I nodded. Then she asked me to hold her feet because they were cold. She remained on her back and I crouched over and held her small white feet in my hands. She told me that her feet always get cold and that when she was a child, her mother would hold her feet for her before she went to bed. She said she used to fall asleep with her mother still holding them. I nodded while she told the story and looked out onto her body and I liked that she didn’t try to cover herself. I held her feet until she said, That’s good. Then I rested my head on her breast and we draped our clothes over our bodies and felt warm like radiators.

Her name was Agnes. I married her.

But before I talk about that I should talk about my pop. He had a lung sickness, but tried to act like he didn’t. I remember he would sit in the armchair in the living room because that’s where he read the newspaper and smoked. The chair always seemed too small for him.

Our living room was on a slant because there was a cave-in below that part of the house. The floor lamp’s chain-pull always drifted toward the slant. We had a coat rack in there too, and our coats drifted toward the slant, like there wasn’t gravity anymore.

When it was dinnertime, my pop would slowly rise from the chair and take short little breaths instead of one big one. I guess the big ones hurt him. He never really told me what was wrong with him, and my mother never talked about it either. But my brother and I—he was 14 and I was 16 at the time—we’d watch my pop from the corridor. My brother was a very perceptive person, the kind of person who senses things, like when animals are angry or when people need help but are trying to act like they don’t. I remember my brother saying, The old man’s got nothing left.

My pop died while taking out the trash that winter. I told him I would take out the trash since it was very cold and I was afraid of his lungs hurting. He said, No, I’ll take out the goddamn trash. He was real short with me. I thought, Just let the old man take out the goddamn trash. It’s cold out anyway. But he didn’t come back for 15 minutes. I thought maybe he got distracted with something out in the shed or the garage. So I went outside quick without my coat and I saw my pop lying on a bed of moss by the trash cans.

There was steam coming out of the moss too. In movies back then, you would sometimes see a dead person’s soul leaving the body in a swirling kind of smoke or haze. That’s what pop looked like. I knew he was dead and I didn’t touch him or feel his pulse like you’re supposed to. I thought about what my brother said and I knew my old man had nothing left. He had dropped the trash bag so I picked it up and put it in the trash can because I didn’t want him to be lying next to garbage. Then I adjusted his coat because it looked crooked on his body. I re-tied one of his shoelaces, the one that was always untied. Then my mom came outside and screamed, Alfred! And I didn’t know if she was yelling at me or my pop lying on the ground. From there on, all I remember is my mother’s high heels sinking into the moss as she approached his body.

The next day was Christmas vacation, so nobody would have noticed that my brother and I weren’t in school. A few days later, I called Agnes and asked her to come over because I had something important to tell her. I was afraid that I’d given her the impression I was going to tell her that I loved her. I didn’t want to get her hopes up for something like that. My mother hadn’t left the house and cried in her room all day and my brother stayed in his room all day, silent. So when Agnes came over, the house itself was very quiet. It was a strangely warm day that winter, and we sat on the crooked porch and watched the steam rise out of vents all across the neighborhood. I said, Agnes, I have something important to tell you, it’s very sad. She said, What is it? And then I said, My pop died yesterday.

She started crying. I thought it was strange because she didn’t ever meet my pop. But that’s how Agnes is. She asked me, Why aren’t you crying, Alfred? And I said, I know I should be but I can’t. She said, Didn’t you love him? She was angry when she said it, like I wasn’t giving my pop the proper respects. Her pop had died when she was quite young and she had told me that after he died, she was never the same. I said, Of course I loved him, stubbornness and all. But right now I can’t feel anything.

But I did feel my feet getting warm from the earth. We had been sitting on one step the whole time and I felt the radiant heat rising up from the mine fire. I asked her, Are your feet cold right now? She said yes. I said, We can go inside and I’ll hold them for you. She nodded and we went to my room and undressed and kissed and touched each other. When it was over I held her feet like before and she said, Alfred, sometimes I don’t get you.

She even went to the funeral with me. In the church my mother sat between my brother and me and sobbed. We each held one of her hands. Then Agnes sat on my left and held my other hand. I stared at the stained glass windows and thought, I wish I could have an image of me in stained glass with Agnes.

Then we all walked to the cemetery, dressed in black, a big long procession of my pop’s miner friends and family and some of the Poles even came, and they said their respects in Polish and I thought, Grief sounds earnest in other languages too. The gravediggers had already cut the hole out of the ground and there was a wide vent of steam coming from it, like the earth was ready to accept my pop into it. There was moss all around the grave and everyone’s feet got warm as we said our final goodbyes, even Agnes’.

We had the wake at my house. Agnes and I sat in my room and drank wine. Neither of us had drunk so much wine before and I felt warm and loose and then I started to cry. She said, Alfred, nothing else matters right now, so cry all you want. I did. I rested my head on her soft breast and when I lifted my head, there was a big spot of wetness on her dress where my face had been. I was embarrassed about the wet spot, but she said it was fine.

A few weeks later, a funny thing happened. We had to evacuate town. The government was coming in to analyze the mine fires and deem whether it was even safe for a whole town to function on top of them. The government said the gases might be bad for us to be breathing in all the time, and that the moss might have absorbed certain elements that made it unsafe. We all had to take up with relatives and friends in the next town over.

We stayed with the wife of one of my pop’s Polish friends. The Polish man had died, but his wife remained in contact with our family. She had two kids the age of my brother and me. We ate sauerkraut for dinner and it was like being in a different world because they spoke to each other in Polish, their house had strange decorations in it, and there were pickled meats in jars all over the kitchen counter. I remember they had a painting of a large bird in their living room, and its wings looked like they were on fire. It was a fierce-looking bird. One of the sons, I think his name was Kazik, or something like that, looked at me looking at the firebird and said, Our firebird beats ze eagle any day. My brother laughed, but I didn’t. Kazik scared me a little because he loved Poland so much and he was serious all the time and his eyes were an eerie blue color, like a glacier. I had never seen a glacier but I thought his eyes must be like one, immense and deep and impenetrable. My brother said, It’s stupid to fight over national birds. It’s like saying, my dad is more dead than your dad. Kazik left the room and I heard him say something in Polish. I felt a pain rising up in my chest, but I couldn’t tell if it was anger or sympathy.

I felt out of place and missed Agnes. I wanted to go back to our moss and our crooked porches and warm earth. I was 18 at the time, and I thought, As soon as I get back I will ask her to marry me. But the government kept delaying its declaration on the safety or lack of safety in our town. They said that the mine fires extended deeper underground than they had initially projected, that they had to call in a team of geologists and chemists to figure out how deep the fires stretched. But everyone in Colorado who was staying in the next town felt like the safety analysis didn’t matter. Colorado was a coal town and coal towns are dangerous and dirty. All of our parents knew that when they moved to Colorado. They knew that their children would grow up around safety hazards and lung sickness and foreigners and people without fathers.

Finally, the government made its declaration—they didn’t know if the town was safe or not. They said we could all move back but that we should consider moving to the next town over for good as a precautionary measure. We all came back to Colorado, but it wasn’t the same as before. Now we looked at the moss and the steam with a bit of uneasiness. I had missed it, that’s true, but something about it seemed different. Corrupted, even.

The first day back I met up with Agnes and said, Agnes, I have something important to ask you. She said, What is it? I said, Will you marry me? And she threw her arms around me like girls always do, and she said, Yes, yes, yes. It was quite simple.

We got married in the church where my father’s funeral had been held. My mother and my brother were there, and a lot of the town came, even Kazik and his family. Agnes and I moved into a small house close to the old mines. It was cheap to live there because the house tilted so much. We still live in that house. It is very slanted now and when my wife makes tea, the tea goes to one side of the cup, nearly spilling.

Sometimes our bodies hurt from walking on the uneven floors all the time. Everyone else has moved away. My brother moved away as soon as he was old enough. He’s dead now. My mother moved to the next town over, but she is dead now too. They are both buried there next to my pop and their graves still steam like the rest of the ground here. The fires still burn underground. Agnes and I don’t think that the gases are poisonous, or that the moss is dangerous. It doesn’t really matter anyway because we’re old people now and lots of things don’t matter when you’re old. Some things matter more when you’re old. Right now, my wife is lying in bed reading something. That matters
to me.