December 8, 2020: “In the Valley of the Kings” by William Black

Tuesday coming at you, Story366!

Last night, we wrapped up the Scout Christmas Tree Lot for 2020. Huzzah! We soft-opened on the night before Thanksgiving, selling fewer than ten trees, but had the lot set and ready to go. The day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, we sold a whopping 102, nearly a quarter of all our trees. Me and my son worked a double shift the other day, starting off the day with just fifteen trees and sold the last one just before 4 p.m.—those last few trees did not move, people driving up and driving off, rolling down their windows and asking if we had any more trees, as if we were putting out one at a time. But it finally sold and we were done, 479 trees in eleven days.

Last night at our regular weekly meeting—held during at the tree lot location—was the tear-down, which was something to behold. This is a pretty complex operation with a lot of moving parts, and on top of that, it was a school night, our meeting not starting until seven. Still, with twenty Scouts and nearly that many parents, the whole thing was wrapped up in under two hours. We were home by nine, settling in for the night, our major fundraiser in the books.

And in eleven days! Last year, we sold out in fifteen days, though admittedly, had eighty more trees. But still, we’re done, and that means I do not have to do a shift with my son tomorrow night, we don’t have to do the double shift on Saturday, and then we don’t have to do another evening shift next Wednesday. The tear-down would have been the following Saturday or Sunday, and that’s off the calendar, too. I really love the tree lot, love being out there, and with all the grading and reading and blogging I’ve been up to as of late, it was a pleasure to get outside, talk to humans, and use my hands. But my grading will be done by Sunday, expedited by this extra time, and then I’ll start thinking about the holidays. Those strings of lights in my basement aren’t going to put themselves up. I also need to get some writing done. Oh, and this: How about I not do nothing for a bit?

Today brought me to William Black‘s 2020 collection, In the Valley of the Kings, out just now from Texas Review Press as its most recent winner of their George Garrett Fiction Prize. This is my first reading of Black’s work, and that’s always awesome, so let’s do this.

I read a couple of stories in this book about a great fire that started in Northeastern Pennsylvania and basically destroyed a town. That town liked to dump its garbage into an old strip mine, and due to some sinkhole-like collapses, the burning garbage fell into a deeper hole and lit a line of anthracite coal. The town thought they had the fire under control, but before they knew it, three hundred acres of underground coal was lit, sending dangerous smoke and fumes up to the surface. Eventually, everything under the town was either smoking or burned out, holes sucking huge parts of the surface under, including a kid playing in his yard when the whole thing went down.

One of those stories, “Centralia,” is about a guy named Martin who comes to this town, forty years after the fires started, with a unique business proposal. While a team of scientists is in town trying—yet again—to figure out how to stop the fires and sinkholes, Martin is meeting with town reps to pitch his wares. His ware? A plan to revitalize the town with an improved downtown, an arts scene, and several festivals, attributes that draw people to a town, make them want to stay and spend money. Martin is taken around town by a local named Frank, and eventually meets with the mayor, who likes his pitch, but is unmoved. The scientists are what they need at this point, not Martin’s plans, which would be putting the cart before the horse. Martin, meanwhile, can’t help but see Centralia as a metaphor for his own daughter, Melissa, who’s lost touch with everyone, sinking further and further into drug addiction. Melissa, like Centralia, might be dead, or at least past the point of saving.

The other story (of the ones I read) that deals with this town and its forty-year fire is the title story, “In the Valley of the Kings.” This one is about Martin again—only it’s not an adult Martin, years later, trying to fix the town with a business pitch. This Martin is ten years old in 1967, when the fires start, giving the situation a different perspective. Is this the same Martin that comes back, years later, to try and save the town with some marketing and reimagine? Honestly, I don’t know. I went over “Centralia” a bunch of times to see if there’s any mention of that Martin growing up in this town, but I couldn’t find any. So, two Martins in two stories about the same town and same disaster (unless it’s just the same guy and I’m missing that somehow).

Anyway, Martin and his mom and dad have just moved to this town, his dad’s hometown, after living in Akron, and before that, Tacoma. Martin’s dad is a salesman, working first for Boeing in Washington, then for Goodyear in Akron, and now for the coal mining company in Pennsylvania. Early on, Martin’s dad is described as a highly competent man, capable of selling anything, the heir apparent to the coal mining company’s CEO job.

The fire, by the way, has just begun at this point, and we don’t get as much exposition about it in this piece, at least not early on, at least not like got it in “Centralia,” all of it laid out on the first page. “In the Valley of the Kings” starts off more about Martin and his family, living with his paternal grandma, some weird smells emanating from the ground. We, like the characters at this point, don’t know this fire’s going to last for forty years, that everyone’s going to leave, that it’s ground zero of a huge human fuck-up. The only reason I knew what was going on, just how bad it was, is because I’d read the other story.

Eventually, it comes out that Martin’s dad is not the man we were introduced to early on. There’s a solid backstory scene describing a night in Akron, tornados ripping through town, but Martin’s dad refusing to head downstairs, despite Martin’s mom’s warnings and pleadings. It gets pretty intense, the father and son sitting at the kitchen table, playing chess, showing us how far Martin’s dad is willing to prove he’s right, to salvage a situation, endangering his family. Kind of implies he’s not leaving the town that’s on fire any time soon, right?

Martins’ dad also gets fired from the coal mine, apparently not as in line for the top job as had been discussed. Turns out, he was fired from Goodyear and Boeing, too, as he has the tendency to leave work, in the middle of the day, without taking off, just to walk around and think. This has torn the family apart, forcing the cross-country moves, forcing Martin’s mom to Martin up and leave his father behind, in the poison-spewing fiery hellhole that is their town.

I love both these stories, centered around this huge underground fire, centered around people trying to figure out their lives with it as the background. I read two stories about this place, this horrific incident, and honestly, could have read more.

I also read the last story in this book, “The Pleasure Dome,” another piece set in Black’s home region of Northeast Pennsylvania. This one’s about a kid whose dad works ungodly hours, coming home every night filthy and exhausted. After a fight with his wife, he takes his boys out to the bar he frequents, The Pleasure Dome, which doesn’t go over well with the bar folk, nor is wife, yet forms a memory the protagonist has forever.

I enjoyed reading William Black’s sad, intense, and real stories in In the Valley of the Kings, stories about hardworking people just trying to get by, but often losing the battle. These are real stories and are told extremely well, Black delving deep into his characters, people who are dealing with something besides the obvious, problems that Black somehow makes greater than a town on fire for forty years.