As a kid, I grew up with summer visits to Central Pennsylvania. My uncle had a house in Kulpmont—a small, duplex town. There, the houses sat right on top of each other. Normally, when we visited, we would swim in his pool for hours, making forts out of pool rafts and noodles, but today it was too cold. My cousin and I looked for something else to do.
“There’s a park at the top of town, it’s right up the hill. They just re-did it,” my uncle suggested.
We nodded, busted out his front door, raced to the top of the hill pushing past elderly couples and children on scooters, jumping over the cracks in the sidewalks, and only stopping to admire cute dogs pent up in fenced-in backyards. Every house here looked the same, except my uncle’s.
When we made it to the top we pushed ourselves onto swings, tired and panting. The town was on a steep hill, so when you sat at the park at the top of town, you could see the rows of houses descending into dilapidation. They sloped downward, piling on top of each other. Broken roofs and grimy side paneling blended together. There were no big businesses, just aged houses and barely emphasized local businesses.
A while later we returned to my uncle’s house for lunch—square pizza with American cheese instead of mozzarella from the local pizza shop and knock-off grape soda. Afterwards he treated us to Bittersweet ice cream, cookies and cream, lovingly renamed Coal Dust by my relatives.
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My great grandmother, Nanny Rosie, got sick late-summer of 2014 and it lingered—for months. My family visited her in the hospital several times over the course of three months, but I always stayed back to watch my younger siblings. She was getting worse. She couldn’t recognize anyone anymore. Her health sloped downward—dilapidated and sagged.
She was let out of the hospital a few days before Thanksgiving. I’m not sure if she was doing better or worse, but they let her go home. Usually, we celebrated at my grandparents’ house, across the street from mine, their dining room table filled with turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and green bean casserole. But this year we traveled to Kulpmont.
I watched the houses tumble down the hill behind us as our tires climbed towards Spruce Street. We parked out front and as we entered the house everything became clouded. My uncle’s dining room set, uncluttered and set with mismatched dishes and plastic fruit-decorated cups, and my grandmother sobbing in my uncle’s arms.
Everything slowed down the moment I walked through the door. The room felt heavy, full of sorrow and dust.
“What’s wrong?” My little sister asked, puzzled.
“Everything’s okay.” I ushered her to the couch.
A few moments later my mom asked if I wanted to see her. I shook my head. It would feel too real to see her like that, laying in my uncle’s bed, under the covers, like she was sleeping. I refused to see her.
She laid in the bed for hours before anyone came to get her, to bring her wherever they bring dead bodies. Before they did, I peered around the corner of his doorway. She looked just like I thought she would. But more still than I could’ve ever imagined. Her skin was a pale gray, and her wrinkled skin burrowed into her face. She finally matched this town.
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Senior year of high school, after I had committed to Susquehanna University, about thirty-five minutes from Kulpmont, my uncle told me I could use his pool anytime. I took him up on it once, making the trek from the Poconos to Kulpmont with my friend Ronan and their friend Matt.
We drove through the town, me for the millionth time and them for the first. We drove in next to a run-down mechanic, turned onto the “main” road, full of shut down small businesses. Turned next to the beaten up Sunoco on the corner across from a small pool inflatables shop decorated with a giant, sagging flamingo-shaped inner tube.
“Where is everything?” Ronan asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, businesses and stuff? I haven’t seen a single grocery store or anything.”
“I don’t know, that’s just what it looks like. It’s always looked like this. At least, as long as I can remember being here. It’s a pretty small town.”
The doors were locked when we got there. My uncle was at work. We made our way down the alleyway between his house and the duplex next door and hopped the wooden gate that led back to his backyard. We swam for a few hours before heading over to Discount Night at Knoebels amusement park.
On our way home, about fifteen minutes out our stomachs grumbled. “Could we stop for food?” Ronan shouted over the music, the noise shaking the exterior of my shitty, silver Scion.
I turned down the radio. “Uh, sure,” I passed them my phone. “Put something into Google Maps.”
“How do we feel about Wendy’s?” They asked, looking to me and Matt for approval.
I glanced at him through my rearview mirror and we both nodded.
The Wendy’s was about thirty minutes out of the way. I sped through back roads in the middle of god-knows-where. Trees and more trees, a sign for the Wendy’s—3 MILES AHEAD—faded, like it hadn’t been touched in years.
It popped up out of nowhere. Nothing leading up to it besides dark tree lines and orange traffic cones. We got our food and got back on the road, turning right onto a skinny street running next to the building.
Before we knew it the narrow stretch of pavement transformed into a dirt road barely wide enough for the car to squeeze through. The thick tree line hugged us and my headlights barely shined bright enough to light up fifty feet in front of us. “Are you sure this is the right way?” Ronan asked.
“I think so, at least that’s what the GPS says?” I questioned, fiddling with my phone.
We kept going. The road only got more emaciated as we progressed. I don’t know what we’re going to do if I have to turn around, I thought, this road is not wide enough to turn around on.
“Should we turn around?” Matt suggested from the back seat. Tree branches rubbed against the windows on both sides.
“It says there’s only another quarter mile left.”
About a hundred feet ahead the road came to a stop. A large yellow gate stood in front of us with a white sign hanging off the front that read: ROAD CLOSED. NO ENTRY PAST THIS POINT.
I stopped, laid my forehead against the top of my steering wheel. “Fuck.”
* * *
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My grandparents drove me to Move-in-Day at Susquehanna, seventy-five miles up Route 80 at sixty miles an hour. I watched out the car window as the tree lines and mountains fell behind us. Brown river water from the Susquehanna drowning out old buildings, tilted front porches, barely stabilized homes.
Once we drove into Shamokin Dam, following Route 11, otherwise known as “the Strip”, my grandmother pointed out the window at one of many small buildings turned big businesses lined up on the sign of the road. “It didn’t used to look like this,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked her, following the small buildings piling on top of each other: Bob Evans, Hoss’s, Perkins, KFC, Dairy Queen, McDonald’s, Walmart…
“This street used to look a lot more empty. Mostly small businesses, owned by locals.”
“Oh… Really?” I knew she was from here, but it never occurred to me how so little could change so much.
“Yeah. Oh my God!” She turned to my grandfather, pointing at the gaudy Kia dealership on our left. “Bob, do you remember that little burger place that used to be here? What was it called? It had the best cheese and those milkshakes and—”
My grandfather cut her off, as he often did. “Biff Burger?”
“Yes! Oh my God, Gab you would’ve loved it! It was a little drive-in burger place. They don’t even make stuff like that anymore. The one time when your grandfather and I were young, we had just gotten together, I made him bring me there. I got a Biff Burger and a chocolate milkshake. And we were going over this little bridge and I started choking! On my burger! I think I made him pull over, didn’t I Bob?”
“All I had was a milkshake! So, he handed it to me and I drank some and it was fine, but I thought I was going to die! I’m serious Gabby, you would’ve loved that place! It’s such a shame it’s gone.”