Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.
- Justice Robert Jackson, West Virginia State Board v. Barnette
Dan and Bill made it back to the house before the heavy rain too over. The drizzle had still managed to soak their clothes, however, and Dan changed once more. He almost didn't hear the knock at the kitchen door as he was coming out of the bedroom.
It was his aunt Amy and uncle George along with Dan's great aunt Helen. They looked a little plumper and grayer but otherwise the same. He opened the door and hugged each of them in turn. They ambled, chatting, into the living room where they all sat by the fireplace.
George was Dan's mom's half-brother and they had been very close. Amy was also a nurse, like his mother, and MaryJo had introduced his aunt and uncle at a nurse's dance. MaryJo and George shared a father, Jacob Pilger; Dan's grandfather. He had divorced Dan's grandmother Becky when his mom was still a child. Divorce seemed to run in the family. Aunt Helen was his grandfather's younger sister. She was probably the relative Dan had remained closest to since he'd been estranged from home.
Dan offered everyone coffee, but only George wanted some. He poured himself a refill and got his uncle a fresh cup. Bill had made a second pot, which was turning out to have been a very good idea. Lightning continued to torment the walls with flashes of its eery glow while the rain drummed a persistent staccato on the roof and windows. It felt like being in the eye of a storm with it swirling nosily around them safe in the relative dryness and quiet of the house.
Dan spoke to and exchanged letters with his aunt Helen fairly regularly so she as knew much about his life since he'd left as he'd told anyone who remained. Granted, that still left out quite a lot but she was his last link to this place. She was the family intellectual and read vociferously. One of the few women to have graduated from college in the teens of the twentieth century, she had medical degee from Drexel. But she never used it, instead marrying his uncle Edward, an odd man who never seemed to do anything.
Uncle Edward was a moderately wealthy man and never worked a day in his life though their home was always modest. Had they married for love? Dan never knew though by the time Dan knew them they seemed like an odd match. His aunt was gregarious, intelligent and well read. Uncle Edward, on the other hand, almost never spoke and read only the newspaper or pornography, which he kept in a large drawer next to his recliner. He almost never left that chair and on the rare occasions when he did, we were more or less forbidden from sitting in it. He had died about ten years ago of a liver problem that plagued him most of his life.
He silence was legendary in the family. He almost never, ever spoke to the children. Even Dan's mother had told him that he'd said not one word to her until she'd given birth. Apparently once she was an adult or at least a mother he suddenly began regularly talking to her. Dan could count the number of times he'd spoken to him in one hand. Because of their scarcity, the kids tended to remember them and compare them among themselves. But it was the last thing he'd said to Dan that was etched in memory; and would likely be forever.
After his mother had been taken to the hospital, the family had been taking turns staying with her so someone was also there by her bed. During one of Dan's off times, he'd used the time to be outside and get some exercise. Late February that year had been mild so he'd persuaded a friend of his to play tennis down at the courts next to the pool. When they were done playing, he'd stopped by to pick up his aunt Helen. It had been his turn to drive her to the hospital since she never learned to drive. Only uncle Edward was there when he arrived.
"Where've you been?" His uncle growled.
At the time, Dan was wearing a white shirt, white shorts and white tennis sneakers. He also had a tennis racket and can of balls in his hand. He really had to fight his normal tendency to be sarcastic. If ever a situation called for sarcasm, this would have been it, except for the fact that his uncle almost never spoke to him. So he held back and answered simply. "Playing tennis."
"Your mom died." His uncle shot back bluntly.
Being told that way had been such a shock to his system. The color drained out of him and he slumped into the nearest chair, unable to move for a short time. For some reason, even if you were expecting that someone was about to die, once it finally happened the impact was never lessened by the anticipation. You'd think you'd be more prepared for the news, but in Dan's experience it hit just as hard. It was certainly true with his mom and it still held true when he learned about Chulkie Saturday night, four days ago.
And though he never quite forgave his uncle Edward, he genuinely loved his aunt Helen. She had given him one of the greatest gifts he ever received: a love of literature and reading. From an early age, aunt Helen showered him with books and magazines. Any book he showed an interest in she would buy for him. Dan could not remember a time when he didn't love to lose himself in a good story.
His aunt was perpetually reading several books at once. They were peppered throughout her house, one to a room, so there was always a book to read within easy reach. It was a habit Dan had picked up from her. He sat down next to her now and the four of them exchanged pleasantries. They talked about what they'd been up to over the decades of Dan's absence although he knew most of what they told him. And Dan kept his story in the safe generalities he normally employed to make himself appear more normal and well adjusted. The truth, he believed, was too difficult for them. It was probably a condescension they didn't deserve but he had fallen into this pattern and it suited him as much as he thought it comforted them.
His aunt Amy and uncle George had become much more religious in their middle age. He saw flashes of it in the cards and gifts they occasionally sent his way. And their kids, his two cousins, often visited him in California. They were among his only relatives to have had a glimpse into the life he now lived in California. They had told him how bad it had become. But then fundamentalism was gripping the entire country with its fanaticism and intolerance.
Dan told them the plans for the funeral and when everything was taking place. He was pretty sure his aunt Helen would attend but not Amy and George. They were not related to Chulkie. Dan was their only connection though his mother since she had been married briefly to Chulkie's youngest son. And even though he had died when Dan was young and his mom remarried Rick, his grandmother had fought in court for her time with Dan. And so that's why he spent nearly every weekend at her house from the time of his father's death when he was four until he was around thirteen or fourteen and began to leave his childhood behind. She had been his sanctuary. Almost every positive childhood memory he had took place here at Chulkie's house. In a sense, she had saved him from a far worse fate because without those weekends, life with his stepfather would have been truly unimaginable.
After a pleasant hour or so reminiscing and talking, it was time for them to leave. Amy had to get to work and Helen volunteered at the library every Wednesday afternoon. They looked around awkwardly and Dan realized they had something else they wanted to know but that they wouldn't ask. "What do you want to know?" Dan asked directly, sighing.
His uncle George shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Well, um." He began, then coughed, stalling. "Were you planning on seeing ...." He paused again. "You know?"
Dan did but he wanted to hear it from him. "No, who?" He asked with feigned ignorance.
George coughed again. "Trixie." He said under his breath almost too inaudibly to hear.
"I'm sorry." Dan was going to make him say her name. "I didn't catch that."
"Trixie." He said, this time more loudly.
Dan sat there in the uncomfortable silence for a few seconds, letting her name hang in the air before answering. "I don't know." He said simply. "I haven't had any contact with her since a few weeks after I moved to California. The last time we spoke I ... well, let's just say it didn't go well. I haven't heard from her since. I don't even know where she is. For all I know, she doesn't even live here anymore. It's been a very long time, you know." He paused again before continuing. "I did try to call her once, maybe fifteen years ago. But the number had been disconnected. That's the last thing I know." His aunt and uncle looked around the room, their eyes shifting suspiciously. "Why, what do you know?" Dan asked.
"Nothing." Amy and George said quickly, in unison. They said it a little too quickly for Dan's taste. He suspected they knew more than they were telling, but he still wasn't ready to push the issue, so he let them off the hook. For now.
"Well. we'll see what happens. I'm not going to make a big deal out of it." He said finally, getting up to walk them to the back door. "If I see her, I see her. If not, then I don't." They said their goodbyes and Dan retired to the kitchen after they left.
Bill was having a beer and Dan joined him. He chose a Stoudt's Marzen. "What do you want to do for lunch?" Bill asked. Dan made them Lebanon bologna sandwiches with Havarti cheese. They had the sandwiches with Good's potato chips in the blue, of course, and Butterscotch Krumpets for dessert. Dan was surprised by how much he missed this food. But his enjoyment was tainted by his mind, which kept returning to thoughts of Trixie.