Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
- Soren Kierkegaard
The piercing ring of the phone shattered the early morning quiet and Dan woke abruptly, thinking, "who the hell could be calling at this hour?" That was followed almost immediately by a second thought. "What the hell time is it, anyway?" Dan squinted one eye open with some difficulty and tried to focus on the red glow of the bedside clock. Seconds later the second ring stabbed the air, and Dan groped for the phone, as the time came into focus, 3:03 AM. "Uh, oh," Dan thought, "this can't be good. Good news never comes at three in the morning." The handset was knocked off its cradle by Dan's clumsy fumbling and landed in his hand through sheer luck. "Hello," Dan said tentatively. "Mr. Pilger?" The voice on the phone inquired. "Yes, this is he." Dan said, trying to sound alert. "This is Dr. Arzt at the Hassler Home. I'm calling about Veronica Schaeffer." He then paused to let it sink in before continuing. "Chulkie!" Dan gasped to himself. Chulkie was his nickname for his grandmother. "I'm afraid I have some bad news." Dr Arzt continued. "Your grandmother passed away about an hour ago in her sleep. She wasn't in any pain. The nurses discovered her during their 2:00 a.m. rounds." The doctor blathered on about arrangements and whatnot but Dan had already tuned him out.
His thoughts retreated into the past. The last time Dan saw his grandmother was almost twenty years ago. He suddenly remembered the dream he was having just before the phone rang. Oddly enough, he was in the woods behind Chulkie's the summer after Hurricane Agnes devastated Eastern Pennsylvania, along with much of the east coast, in June of 1972. The tall trees behind her house were knocked over by heavy winds and rain. It was the worst natural disaster in Pennsylvania's history with over two billion dollars in damage and almost fifty deaths. But much in the way that the film Hope and Glory showed how difficult times (in that case World War Two) could be a great adventure for young people, Agnes was an amazing time for a thirteen year-old boy. There was flooding everywhere, although Dan's house was spared with only some dripping water in the basement. Many others fared much, much worse. As a boy scout, Dan rowed small boats out to people's houses to rescue them from off of their roof. It was hard not to be giddy with the thrill of it all. At thirteen, tragedy was a concept not well understood. To Dan and his friends, flooding that swallowed houses whole and the chaos of it all was wondrous. Like being in a disaster movie, but wetter.
Over the months of fall, winter and spring, vegetation grew over the trees felled by Hurricane Agnes so that the area resembled, at least to them, a jungle. Now fourteen, it was the last summer Dan would spend every weekend at Chulkie's. Fall would bring teen priorities: girls, sports, friends and, of course, girls. And the pleasures of the boy would give way to the pleasures of the man. But not yet. Dan's cousin Barry and neighbors Chip, Mike and Jim spent their last summer together playing in the jungle behind the Christmas tree farm that bordered all the houses along Fourth Street. They blazed trails and tunneled under the canopy created by the fallen trees. The forest had become dark and quiet, even at midday. Makeshift forts and hidden open spaces were built and the whole area was mapped. The boys traveled through tunnels of plants and tree trunks since that was the only way in or out of the dark woods. Because of this relative inaccessibility, they pretty much had the place to themselves. Primitive weapons were the only ones allowed (their only rule) so pretend swords, spears and bow and arrows were fashioned out of found sticks. They had the time of their young lives.
It was also the last summer Chulkie could hike up to the quarry. At 70, she was still very spry and could climb the steep path from her backyard through the woods to the quarry, about two miles away. But after that summer she never made the trip again. When the last of her grandchildren stopped coming for regular visits, not out of any malice but rather as a part of the growing process, she gradually withdrew from life. She seemed to lose her reason for being. She'd sleep until Noon, then sit in her comfy chair in the living room all day. Over time, her hands knotted up so she could no longer use them except with great effort and pain. She also could barely get out of her chair. She'd have to rock back and forth until she built up enough momentum to propel herself up and out of it, which meant even more time just sitting and staring, neglecting even food. Then she started forgetting things. At first they were unimportant details but little by little they became more serious lapses, such as who people were, what day it was and whether or not she'd eaten. It was pretty obvious that she wouldn't be able to continue living alone. That's when a caregiver was brought in to take of her.
While still in high school Dan began feeling guilty about not visiting his grandmother and tried to spend time with her. But it became more and more difficult. She was no longer the person Dan had known and loved. At first she could be prompted to remember older events, things from the past. But even those memories eventually slipped away and by the time Dan left to work in California, Veronica Schaeffer didn't know her own name, much less any of her infrequent visitors. That was two decades ago and Dan had not seem her in all that time. And it nagged at him. Of course, he had kept in touch with her caregivers and managed her finances since he left town. So the news wasn't completely unexpected since she was 103 and had been in the home now for a few months.
But now she was dead. Yes, he could believe that the essence of his grandmother had died long before, but it didn't really offer much comfort. Dan, now sitting on the edge of his bed, cupped his hands in his head and wept. Realizing Dr. Arzt was still on the other end of the phone, Dan apologized and told him he'd be home as soon as he could, thanking him for his call.
Grabbing his calendar and walking out onto the balcony, Dan made calls to arrange a flight home as soon as possible. Normally, he would have bought his tickets online but he remembered something about emergency discounts and availability for situations like this. After the typical layers of annoying phone menus and recorded messages, he finally got through to a human being after about fifteen minutes. Frustrated and annoyed by the delay coupled with the stress of his grandmother's death, Dan was tempted to yell at the man on the other end of the line but held back, realizing it wasn't his fault and, more importantly, didn't want to have to repeat the process calling another airline. The best he could do was a non-stop red-eye leaving SFO at 11:30 that night and arriving in Philadelphia the next morning around half past seven.
The stars still twinkled above him and few lights were on in the valley below his house. Even though it was now four in the morning, Dan knew he couldn't go back to sleep. He showered quickly and went downstairs to get a cup of coffee. He put on Nina Simone, figuring her melancholy voice was most appropriate for the time and circumstances, and settled in to watch the sun come up.
So much of his life had passed since he'd last been to Dutch Wonderland, which is what Dan always called the area where he grew up. It was also the name of a cheesy little theme park in nearby Lancaster but he felt it worked for whole Eastern part of the state. It certainly seemed like the area's heritage was mostly German, which is the Dutch part; a corruption of Deutsch, which, amazingly, many people still didn't know. These people thought the Pennsylvania Dutch wore wooden shoes and grew tulips next the dyke with the windmill. And as for a wonderland, it certainly was a wondrous place to grow up. But small town life grew claustrophobic as an adult and after his mother's untimely death he used the events surrounding it as an excuse to flee Pennsylvania for relative anonymity of a big city in California. That decision was not without its costs, however. Dan did miss many old friends and some relatives along with the comfort of familiar surroundings. He spent the first few years very lonely, especially during the holidays. But ultimately, the move had been very good for him and the last ten years had been happy and prosperous.
The most nagging aspect of going home was, of course, the great unmentionable: Trixie. Her name hung in Dan's mind for what seemed like hours. He was very reluctant to dredge up her memory but the prospect of being home made it all but inevitable. Would she be at the funeral? If so, what would he say to her? Or perhaps she was no longer in Shillington at all. After all, he'd had no contact with her since his first month in California. And after that last talk they had, it was certainly conceivable he'd never see or hear from her again. However, that was not the least of his worries about his impending trip home. There were many other unresolved issues that would have to be dealt with. But for now, it was time to pack as the sun finally bathed the sky in warm morning light. Dan drained the last of his coffee cup and began his day.
Luckily, this Sunday held few responsibilities so after packing, he watched the day's football games and fell asleep in front of the tv. It was dark when the sound of knocking woke him. It turned out to be the first trick or treaters, the neighbors' two kids getting an early start dressed as a ghost and a ghoul. It was five-thirty and the Eagles game was already over. They kept the perfect season going by narrowly beating the Ravens. So Dan at least had some good news in what was otherwise a distressing Halloween day.
Tonight was Kevin's traditional Halloween extravaganza and Dan had been going to it almost as long as he'd been in San Francisco. He considered missing it but decided he'd have plenty of time before he had to be at the airport and Kevin had already called to make sure he was coming. Kevin's obsession with Halloween was legendary. Like every year, he spent the entire month leading up to today decorating every nook and cranny of his house including the back and front yards and the roof. There'll be scary movies on a loop on his two televisions, spooky audio sounds and music hidden in every room throughout his house, dry ice in the bathtub, a bonfire out back, bobbing for apples, and on and on and on. Anyone who sees Kevin's party is overwhelmed by the detail of it all. You can see and hear it from blocks away. The front yard is adorned with tombstones listing the imaginative and fitting demise of his best friends. Dan was proud to have been granted a place in the cemetery. His tombstone read: Dan T. Pilger, poet, buried by his books in the big one, a reference to his preoccupation with reading.
Dan needed a costume that he could either wear on the plane or easily change out of before leaving for the airport. He settled on a old costume that he hadn't worn to Kevin's before that needed just a special shirt and two small props. He'd go as a catholic priest in his dog collar shirt and carry around a bible and a copy of the magazine Boy's Life. It was ideal and wearing all black would be cause less attention flying. And it proved fitting as the Bible he chose was the one Chulkie had given him as a confirmation gift when he was thirteen. The costume also carried a funny irony for people Dan knew well, as he was conspicuously not just an atheist but downright anti-organized religion.
Loading his suitcases in the car, Dan left for Kevin's party early since he couldn't stay the whole night. That way he could at least spend a little more time with Kevin and the friends he didn't see as often. Halloween night was always a great spectacle in San Francisco and on the drive to the party he saw hundreds of costumed revelers and houses decorated with pumpkins. These prompted Dan's thoughts toward the legend of the Jack-O-Lantern, which originated in England and Ireland. Jack was a blacksmith too evil to be admitted into heaven and unable to enter hell because he'd outwitted the devil. Condemned to walk the Earth, he scooped up a handful of glowing embers and stuck them in the nearest vegetable he could find to light his way. Originally the vegetable of choice in England was a mangel-wurzel, a big beet, in Scotland, turnips, and in Ireland, potatoes. Once in America, Irish and Scottish immigrants quickly adopted the pumpkin as the perfect vegetable for Jack because of its size and shape.
Finding parking was relatively easy since it was still pretty early by party standards. Dan found Kevin easily in his traditional devil costume out in the back yard. He was still attending to last minute details. Only a few people were there already and they were all close friends and family. Kevin and Dan hugged and he told him about his grandmother's passing.
"Anything I can do?" Dan asked.
"Nah, get yourself a drink" Kevin replied. "Keg's out here and punch, sodas and whatnot are in the kitchen. You know the drill, help yourself."
Dan ambled up the back stairs and turned left into the kitchen. Kevin's place was an old painted Victorian, which he had left pretty much intact. It was always a little disheveled, not dirty, just lived in, which suited Kevin fine. He had no use for the overly fastidious. A sterile environment was a more comfortable place to relax and just hang out. He found the drink table and decided on the weird looking purple punch hiding in the back corner, almost hidden behind the cooler of margaritas. Sweet with a nice tang, it hit the spot, so he had another. He had planned on drinking just beer but the intrigue of a purple drink was simply too alluring, who knows why. Dan stood by himself in a corner nursing his punch and watching the crowd spill in from outside and the house began to fill with costumed guests, only some of whom he could recognize. A sexy-looking woman dressed as a leopard caught Dan's eye and he followed her voluptuous body, which was quite evident in the tight-fitting costume, as she paced the room. The best part of Halloween parties, in Dan's opinion at least, was the acceptability of indiscriminate flirting that would be gauche under normal circumstances. Dan loved to flirt. To him, it was just good clean fun. But he was too awkard to take it any futher anyway, even if he ever wanted to, which was simply not his style, if you could call paralyzing shyness with low self-esteem a style. That the political correctness movement had all but killed the social tolerance of flirting was to him a great tragedy. Even though he understood the very real issues why it was often an unwanted intrusion, he missed those times when two people could just click and spend hours engaged in witty banter laced with innuendo and endless possibilities. But today there were just too many creeps in the world. Dan saw them every single day, ruining it for the rest of mankind, unwilling to think of anyone but themselves.
After draining his fourth cup of purple punch, Dan was starting to feel the false courage that alcohol provides and his restraint began to wane. He even considered walking up the leopard girl and talking to her. "Yes," he thought. "Why not, I'm leaving in a few hours. What's the harm?" He wondered. Just as he was about to go against his better instincts and set off in search of big game, he began to see spots. Happily, the spots were the leopard girl who was now standing directly in from of him, looking at him quizzically. She really did have a beautiful body. She was fairly short, almost a foot shorter than Dan who was a six-footer, with strawberry blonde hair and light freckled skin. Up close, her costume more resembled lingerie than anything else. It was very low-cut and she wore the material like a second skin. Father Dan tried his best not to stare down at her naked cleavage, but he was only human.
"You're not St. Francis of Assisi, are you?" She asked.
"Um, what?" Dan stammered.
"He's the patron saint of animals." She continued, chuckling. "I'm Catherine, by the way." She said, extending her paw for Dan to shake. Dan shook Catherine's hand, replying. "Nice to meet you. I'm Dan. Dan Pilger."
"Ah, the poet." She said knowingly. "Great party. Are they always like this?" Catherine asked.
"Just wait," Dan said, "by midnight it will be wall to wall people." There was an awkward pause, and then Dan asked her, "what made you think I was a poet?"
"I saw your tombstone out front. You look good for a dead guy."
Dan blushed. "Thanks. I get that a lot. I use a good skin cream. That's the key."
She laughed, stroking Dan's back with her hand. They began talking as if they'd known each other for years and ambled from room to room. After a few more drinks, they found themselves alone in an upstairs bedroom. Apart from feeling a little dizzy, Dan was having a great time, just good clean fun. Then suddenly, Catherine moved in toward him gabbing him gently by the wrist and pulling his hand insider her blouse. Dan felt her hard nipple brush against his fingers and then drag along the palm of hand before his fingers encircled the soft fleshy part of Catherine breast. She squeezed his hand into her breast and he heard her moan softly under her breath. It all happened in the blink of an eye. She leaned into kiss Dan and the second he felt her lips, he jumped back pulling his hand out of her blouse.
Catherine looked bewildered. "What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, this is wrong." He said, straightening up. "I was just having a bit of fun. I didn't mean for things to go this far."
She looked a little hurt. "I don't understand. I thought you wanted to."
"See, that's my fault." He stammered. "I just really like flirting. I wasn't trying to lead you on. I was just enjoying talking. I have to catch a plane in a few hours. My grandmother just died." Dan was just rambling now, and any excuse he thought might help came spilling out.
Catherine just looked at him blankly. No, I'm sorry." She said, seeming now a bit embarrassed. She turned away from Dan, and he took the opportunity to duck out of there as quickly as he could.
Rejoining the party downstairs, he said some hellos to friends who'd just arrived and had a chance to tell Kevin and a few others about his grandmother and leaving that night. Then Dan walked out front to get some fresh air and walk around the side of the house to the back yard where the bonfire was getting started. He stared at the fire and tried to pick out the distinct colors of the flames, seeing the usual red and orange with a few sparse sightings of white, green and blue. A guy in a fluffy lion suit walked up and stood next to Dan but he pretended not to notice. He just wanted to stare at the fire and think. He stood staring at the bonfire for what seemed like a long time. At some point he realized the man next to him was talking to him but he hadn't a clue what he'd said. Dan turned toward the lion in time to hear him ask him how he knew Kevin. Dan still couldn't figure out if he was supposed to be the Lion King or one of the characters from the Broadway musical Cats. Either way, a man in a cat suit showed poor judgment as far as Dan was concerned.
"I'm sorry, what? I didn't hear what you said." Dan told him.
"Oh, I wondered how you knew Kevin?" the lion roared back.
"Let's see," Dan thought about which stock answer to give. He had gotten used to this question over the years. Every year, dozens of first-time guests decided this was a clever icebreaker of a question. "We're poker buddies. We've been playing every month for over ten years." Dan guessed the lion was familiar with the poker game Kevin hosted.
"Oh, yeah. I've heard about those. Isn't there a waiting list to get in the game? I know I'd like to play. I'm a pretty good poker player, myself." The lion puffed.
Ka-ching, Dan thought, pleased with himself he'd read him correctly. "I don't know how long the list is, Kevin keeps that to himself."
"I'm DJ Donovan," the lion said, extending his paw, which reminded Dan of the other paw he'd shaken this evening. That had not turned out well, and was cautious about his one.
"Dan," he said, extending a hand. Inside, he was chuckling to himself, though. DJ Donovan. "Who introduces themselves like that?" He thought. "What a maroon." The he remembered who he was. The radio jock Kevin told him about who had put Kevin's band in rotation on his radio show. "Damn," he thought. "I have to be nice to this guy."
"You see yesterday's game?" DJ asked.
"I don't think so. Which game?" Dan answered, felling sure he knew what was coming next.
"The Stanford game, do you know if they beat UCLA? I just got back from Tahoe and I didn't hear the score." Donovan pleaded.
Figures. Only a Stanford yahoo would assume their game was the only game someone would follow, despite there being maybe a hundred other games played yesterday. Dan had met his share of this type of person; the ones for whom their Stanford experience made up the best years of their life and who wouldn't or couldn't talk about anything else. They'd take any opportunity to let you know they went there and they tended to flock together and discuss the good old days. As a Berkeley graduate, Dan should have been a keen rival but he rarely thought about college and didn't consider his alma mater a part of his identity. Frankly, he just didn't care that much about such irrational loyalties. And it seemed like most of his friends, even the ones he'd known since Berkeley felt pretty much the same way. But Stanford alumni seemed to cling to the idea that they were somehow better than everyone else precisely because of their school affiliation. Like it granted them membership in some exclusive club. But he also supposed it did open certain doors, however unfairly he felt that kind of networking to be. If only they weren't so insufferably annoying about it. "No, I don't really follow college sports." Dan replied.
"Oh." The lion king said, a bit surprised. "Not even Stanford?"
"Well, I went to Cal." Dan said flatly. "But I don't really get wrapped up in all that school rivalry nonsense, if you know what I mean."
He obviously didn't and snorted. "We're gonna kick your butt this year."
"Uh, huh. You're probably right. I don't really know." Dan soothed. He didn't want to make any trouble for Kevin so he made a hasty retreat, saying it was time for another drink.
He ran into Kevin going up the back stairs into the kitchen and they ducked into the back studio to talk. "What's with DJ Donovan?" Dan asked. "Could he take Stanford just a little bit too seriously?"
Kevin laughed knowingly. They'd had this conversation before. "Yeah, he is a little unhinged. But he's playing our record so I invited him thinking it might help get us more airtime."
"That's what I figured." Dan continued. "I got out of there before I started in on him and got you in trouble."
"Thanks, I owe you one." Kevin shot back. "To pay you back, here's a word of advice. Watch out for Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS."
"What?" Dan replied, not understanding.
"Look out for a babe dressed up like a Nazi. You know, like that cheesy Seventies movie ... or the blonde babe in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Low cut white military shirt, black riding pants, black boots, saucer cap and a riding crop."
"She going to spank me?" Dan asked, his curiosity piqued.
"Sort of. She's a friend of Catherine. You know, a friend. Wink, wink. That woman I saw you talking with earlier in the leopard costume. Apparently she's not too happy with whatever you did or were doing to her friend. Dan spilled, quickly adding, "what did you do to her, anyway?"
"Oh, god." Dan replied, striking himself in the forehead with the palm of his hand. "She tried to kiss me upstairs in the back bedroom. She put my hand in her blouse. On her tit."
"And that was bad, how?" Kevin was staring at him, slack-jawed.
"You know me, Kevin." Not my style. I just like to flirt. You know I'd never ..."
"You idiot." Kevin interrupted, smacking him on the shoulder with the back of his hand. "She was beautiful!"
"Yeah, but ..." Dan tried to explain but Kevin held up his hand with the Boy Scout all quiet sign, the hand-goes-up-the-mouth-goes-shut gesture.
"What time do you need to get outta hear to make your flight?" Kevin asked, mercifully changing the subject.
Dan looked at his watch. "In about half an hour. I better start saying my goodbyes."
"Well, give me a hug now." Kevin said, reaching out with his arms for him and they embraced warmly. "Thanks for coming. Under the circumstances, I wasn't sure you would make it. I'm glad you were here."
"Haven't missed one in I don't know how many years. Not gonna start now." Dan gushed.
"When you coming back?" Kevin asked.
"Next Sunday. Unless it's takes longer than I figure to get everything done. I've got to have the funeral, clean out the house, get everything rolling with the probate guy, fight with my relatives. Oh, and most importantly, have a cheesesteak from V & S." Dan rattled off, counting each task on his fingers.
"Well, doesn't that sound like fun," said Kevin, sarcastically. "You gonna see ..." He hesitated. You know, the "T" word?"
Dan bowed his head. "I honestly don't know. I'm trying not to think about it." He and Kevin had had many, many late night talks about Trixie, especially. So many, in fact, that Kevin felt like he knew her. "Well, tell her 'hi' from me."
"She doesn't even know you." Dan chortled. "I kinda doubt I'll even see her. Hell, I don't really know if she's even there, much less whether she'd want to see me."
"Well, fly safe, and let me know if there's anything I can do." Kevin offered. "I'll see you when you get back."
"Just make sure you start my car every couple of days and that's about it. You can use it if you need to. That's cool, of course." Dan replied. "Kevin was the brother he never had," Dan thought, as he watched him walk back outside. Now he just had to navigate the house without being captured by a Nazi She-Wolf. "If it's not one thing, it's another." He chuckled to himself.
He managed to make his final rounds and get out the front door undetected. He even caught a glimpse of the all too sexy Ilsa, without being seen ... twice. Her and Catherine were quite a pair. "Where did Kevin know them from? He wondered.
He was just going down the short flight of cement steps when from around the side came Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. He almost thought he heard Wagnerian music playing as she rounded the corner. "Where you going, Rev.?" Ilsa barked.
"Well as a matter of fact, I've got a plane to catch." He answered.
"Not 'til you and I settle something. You weren't very cool to my friend Catherine. You shouldn't have grabbed her like that." She accused.
"You've got to be joking." He said. "I didn't do any such thing. She grabbed me." He continued, feeling himself becoming angry.
"It's your word against my friend." She said, holding her ground. "Unless you want to make it worth my while."
"What are you talking about." Dan asked, sharply.
"You know, you could give me some money. Nobody has to know about this." She said, puffing out her chest so her shirt opened up a bit more.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" He shot back furiously. "You can't be serious. Tell you what. My grandmother just died. I'm getting on a plane to bury her. You can go back in there and tell whoever you want, whatever you want. I don't really give a shit. I don't even know who you are. You better hope I don't see you here again."
"I'm not finished with you." The She Wolf barked.
"Oh, yes you are." Dan spat back as the taxi cab pulled up and he opened the door to get in. He turned back but she was gone. He could see her stomping up the front stairs and he got into the back of the cab. "What a bitch." He said out loud, his heart pounding from the confrontation. "SFO, please. United. Thanks."
The cab driver looked up briefly in the direction of the house and sped off towards the airport. During the drive, Dan felt progressively odder and the lights of the city seemed to dance and spin. Dan hadn't remembered the lights being so amazing before. The driver left Dan to himself until they were past Candlestick Park, then spoke in mostly unintelligible words he couldn't quite make out. All Dan got was something about Ilsa and a greyhound and a taking another path to salvation. "What was that?" Dan asked. But the driver said nothing until they reached the terminal.