There cannot any one moral rule be proposed whereof a man may not justly demand a reason.
- John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
It was still raining when they finished their lunch, but Dan still needed to go to the bank to close out his grandmother's account. It was the only thing he really needed to get done today. He would have preferred to wait until the rain stopped, but it wasn't looking like that might happen at all. So they unhitched the Minotaur and headed out into the storm.
It was a short drive to the M&T Bank on Liberty Avenue opposite the funeral home and up the block from Dan's old church. They were the only car in the wet parking lot. The name on the sign had changed several times over the years but the building looked just the same as when he'd go there with his mother. It must have looked very modern when in was new in the fifties with its clean lines and symmetry, like a Mondrian painting. Now it looked terribly dated, out of time.
Inside was the same. The manager, Bob Huntzinger, had lived across the street from Dan on State Street when they were kids. They hadn't really been friends but were neighbors who got along well enough. Bob was a year older and played varsity basketball. He hadn't seen Bob since he left for college the same year he started his senior year. It certainly made closing her account easier since Bob knew Dan personally. Bob had a bit of a paunch these days and less hair but was otherwise the same as Dan remembered him. They sailed through the paperwork and he was out dodging raindrops in short order.
With time to kill, they got more cheesesteaks at V & S. Dan parked the car near the high school and they ate in the rain. "Quite a vacation spot." Bill observed sarcastically.
"Yeah, nice weather we're having. The snakes and frogs should be along any minute now." Dan replied in kind.
"Nothing else to do today?" Bill asked.
"No, not really." Dan replied. "I could start cleaning out the house, but I don't really feel like it. It can wait until tomorrow. All I really need to do is go through it all and box up what to keep. The auction house people will come in and take care of the rest. Jim can oversee it and I won't have to deal with it at all. Friday's the viewing but we can go to the farmer's market in the morning. Saturday's the funeral and then the wake that night, then home for me."
"Cool." Bill said. "What about Trixie? I know you didn't believe that shit about maybe I'll see her, maybe I won't. Que Sera, sera horse shit. Why the fuck does everybody always tap dance around her with you?"
"When she split, or rather when I split, I didn't take it well and she took it even worse. I didn't deal with it very well at all and every time anybody asked me about it I'd freak out. Not necessarily at them, but that happened too, sometimes. Mostly people got so tired of hearing me talk endlessly about it that it became a taboo to even mention her name. After a while it was easier for me to forget her if everybody else played along like it never happened. I admit it wasn't the healthiest way to deal with it, but it got the job done."
"But now so much time has passed that I'm not even sure what I'd say to her if I did see her. I know I'm not the same person I was when I was 22. And I doubt very much she's the same, either. So maybe it is better to keep the good memories intact and not dredge up all the old emotions. It won't change anything in the past. So there's a big of part of me that would be thrilled to get in and get out of town without some inevitable showdown with Trixie. I can't see what good would even come of it, to be honest."
"But you should have seen your face when I told you she still dreams of you. Man, you lit up." Bill said.
"Maybe." Dan replied. "I won't deny there are unresolved feelings there and strong emotional attachments. But I think anger is all I'm likely to get from her. It was a terrible ending, and I was horrible to her, as well. I'm not sure I'd forgive me so why should I expect the same in return. She knew then I wasn't responsible for everything so I don't see how time would soften that opinion. I resigned myself to my fate a long time ago. I learned to just accept it. It wasn't easy; in fact, it took ten years. A whole decade obsessing and feeling sorry for myself. It's a wonder I have any friends at all after what I dragged them through."
"Hey, you're being kinda hard on yourself, don't you think?" Bill asked.
"No, I think I've really gone easy on myself. I ran away. To stay would have been hard. But I chose the path of least resistance. I've been on that road now for two decades. I knew it was wrong then just as I know it now. I think that's why I was such an asshole at the time. I was punishing myself for what happened, too. Not just everyone around me."
Bill peered out the window. It had grown dark while they were talking. Bill stared up at the barely visible stars and pointed out the big dipper. He looked for Pisces but couldn't see it. He turned to face Dan and said. "Let's get drunk."
Dan started the car and turned the Minotaur toward home.
They picked up a few six-packs at Flanagan's Pub on Lancaster Avenue and Miller Street across from Denny's Hair Styling, which had been Anthony's when Dan and his stepfather got their haircut there. At that time, Denny was an employee of Anthony, who was a gentle white-haired Italian barber. When he retired, Denny bought the barbershop and it had been Denny's ever since. By now, Denny must be the same age that Anthony had been when Dan was a young boy.
Flanagan's had done business under another name before, but Dan could not remember it despite all the time he'd spent there as a kid. His alcoholic stepfather had taken the family there for dinner dozens of times over the year. A couple of years after Dan's graduation, a classmate of his, Ron Kemp, stabbed to death a man coming out of the bar. Eighth grade was the last year that he was a member of Dan's class. After repeatedly banging on classroom doors, swearing at teachers and disrupting classes, he finally went too far by striking a female teacher. The rumor had always been that he'd been sent to a juvenile jail but it was more likely he went to a special school for the mentally unbalanced.
After high school, Kemp sightings began and many of Dan's friends starting seeing him wandering the streets in and around Shillington. Since Ron was never seen in a car, they guessed he wasn't allowed to drive. Dan had a sighting once along Wyomissing Avenue in between Mohnton and Shillington. Ron was just walking the road, off the sidewalk in the street by the curb. The laid in wait until a man left the bar, and he stabbed him. Ron's defense was that he'd accidentally killed the wrong person. The Ron Kemp sightings abruptly stopped and he hasn't been seen since.
They picked up six-packs of Stoudt's Scarlet Lady Ale, Victory Hop Devil IPA and Dogfish Head WorldWide Stout. All in all, they pretty good selection for a local bar. They stashed the beer in the 'frig and Bill poured himself an ESB and Dan had the India Pale Ale. Dan put some snacks in a bowl and Bill carried the glasses into the living room where they settled into their usual spot around the fireplace. After some idle chit chat about the day's events,
"So what was she like?" Bill asked.
"You mean Chulkie?" Dan confirmed. Bill nodded. "Well, she was always good to me. I could do no wrong in her eyes which, given my home life, was magical. She couldn't drive so my other grandmother, who lived in Mohnton, would be waiting for me when I got home from school on Fridays. I'd quickly overfill a knapsack with enough clothes and toys to last for weeks, and then the three of us would drive to Chulkie's. Even though it was only a dozen blocks or so blocks from my house, it felt like it was on the other side of the world."
"You ever notice how your perception of the world keeps expanding as you age. When your three or four, your world is house, your parents, maybe a few other relatives. When you're six, eight, in that range your world is added to by your block, your neighbors. Then it becomes the neighborhood and your school. Short distances seem vast since you can only walk or ride your bike. When you can finally drive, the world grows again, this time exponentially. But even then it has limitations. So even though the distance inside town shrinks, the distance between towns grow so even a half-hour drive seems like a journey. But then air travel shrinks the world yet again and no doubt the more we travel, the smaller the world appears. For instance, when I lived here before, driving into Reading or to Mt. Penn was something we did only on rare occasions because of how far away it seemed. But having lived in the sprawl of northern California of the last twenty years, the distances here seem quaintly small to me now. It's all about perception."
"Anyway, there was always something to do at Chulkie's house. She always cooking and I don't think she ever used recipes. She used to make this creamy potato soup that was my favorite. It had the consistency of a cream of carrot or red pepper soup. But it was just potatoes. Man, that was tasty. I'm going to look tomorrow but I'll bet I don't find even a clue as to how she made it."
And the house Dan's grandfather built was just filled with places to explore. On the ground floor there were four bedrooms, two baths, a large living room, formal dining room, and the kitchen. Down a long hallway there were three closets, one of which was filled with games. Dan's grandmother loved to play game. Unlike most adults Dan knew, she would always stop whatever she was doing to play a game. In between the living room and kitchen, there was an alcove there where the phone was always kept and next to it was a closed door. Behind that door was the other entrance from the back porch and the door that led upstairs. Dan's grandfather miscalculated on the stair measurements and had to build them very steeply so they'd fit. Each step was about 150% of a normal size step. Dan and his cousin Barry had a difficult time climbing those stairs."
Upstairs was an entire separate one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen, dining area, bedroom, along with a pretty good size living room and bath. There was also a pantry off the kitchen, which had a small door that led into the attic that was in the space under the roof that wasn't tall enough for people. It had been filled with boxes and other unused household items. Dan and his cousin Barry would string together several extension cords to dimly light the area and then would spend hours upon hours shifting the boxes into any configuration they could think of. A favorite was a rocket ship whose controls consisted of an old tube radio with huge knobs and buttons drawn on cardboard with a magic marker.
Dan's parents lived in the upstairs when he was first born. Then later, Chulkie moved up there when his uncle Bob and aunt Lydia lived in the main house on the ground floor with his cousin Barry. They lived at Chulkie's for a number of years until they bought a house in West Hills, a new neighborhood in southwest Shillington. Dan and his cousin were the same age and had been very close until Barry became a heavy drug user in high school. At that point, he became very distant and more odd than usual. His mother, Dan's aunt Lydia, was an overbearing person and had many harsh rules for Barry, which he greatly resented. They fought often and Dan never seemed like he had a happy life, either. He overdosed and died when he was twenty years old.
"She would go on hikes with us kids until she was seventy years old." Dan continued. "Then it became to hard for her to walk the steep gravel road behind the house that let up to the woods. Right behind here at the edge of her yard, there's a Christmas tree farm. Beyond that it's forest. There's an access road in between the tree farm and the woods and a fire road that leads up the top of the hill in the woods. I don't know who owns the land but we never ran into anyone who said we couldn't be there." There were well-worn paths all over the place and at least two quarry areas though only one seemed like anyone was actually working there. Sometimes Chulkie would pack a picnic lunch and we'd all go hiking in the woods. But most of the time Dan and his cousin would play alone in the woods. Sometimes they were geologists, other times archeologists and occasionally warriors. But the woods were a sanctuary for both of them; Barry from his mother and Dan from his stepfather. They spent as much time as they could there every summer.
They left early every Saturday morning and stayed out until it was time for their favorite cartoon: The Adventures of Jonny Quest. "A cartoon about a kid our age with parents who didn't suck and took all around the globe on cool adventures; man, that was a great show." Dan exclaimed.
"I remember that show." Bill agreed. "It was cool. So that doesn't sound so bad. What was wrong with your childhood?"
"Well, in a sense that's the point here. Almost all my time not at Chulkie's I was on edge because of my stepfather's drinking and violence. When they first married, when I was five, Rick was fine. In fact we got along great. He was like a big kid. The only thing we fought about then was who got to read the new Mad magazine first. As I got older things got progressively worse. That's why the idyllic world of my grandmother's was such a lifesaver. It kept me saner or more normal than if I didn't have a chance to get out of that environment every weekend. Once I was too old to go every weekend because of increasing activities and school obligations in junior high then things were at their worst. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was at least in part because of not having that escape anymore."
"Of course, the transition wasn't immediate. It was more gradual. I even had a couple of parties in junior high in Chulkie's basement. It was a great place for kids parties." Besides the two-car garage, the basement had a great room with old sofas and chairs with a big stone fireplace. There was a boiler room, a laundry room, a room for plants, a room they just kept the fireplace wood in, and a couple of big closets. There was even a half bathroom. "We played post office in one of the closets at one party. It was great. But it was hard to mix adolescence with the world of my childhood so I just started going to her house less and less as I became busier and busier growing up."
"Whenever images of ideal family values are talked about, usually by politicians whose own values are invariably less than perfect, the closest association I can make is my time at Chulkie's. There were just lots of simple memories like sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch during a thunderstorm. There I could be an innocent in ways that were impossible when my stepfather was beating my mother or me. When someone you trust is putting bruises on your arm, it's very hard to remain innocent. It makes you age much faster, if only on the inside. So I created two worlds for myself: reality, which I needed to escape, and Chulkie's world, which was where I escaped."
"Dude, sorry I asked. Why didn't your mom just leave him?" Bill asked.
"Good question. I asked myself that question every single day. I think she was weak. Society had taught her she had to have a man around, like it was required, and she bought into hook, line and black eye. I don't think she liked being alone plus the nurse in her tried to fix Rick. She was always trying to take of him. As I got older and he got worse she neglected me more and more. She was trying to hold on to him, but who knows why? As a kid, it made no sense whatsoever, but he obviously provided some need in her. And as is typical in abusive relationships, she frequently blamed herself. It strained our relationship toward the end of her life and I don't think I helped the situation much, either."
"That I don't regret, except perhaps that I was too afraid to stand up to him. He was a big, strong ex-marine and when he was drunk and violent he seemed many times stronger than when he was sober. Something happened to him as child, too. He was definitely hurting inside but he grew up in a tough part of the city where you didn't show your emotions. He didn't even know who his father was, though the rumor was that it was the catholic priest that knocked up his mother. A milquetoast of a man married his mom so Rick wouldn't be born out of wedlock. Myron, my step-grandfather was as gentle as Rick and his mother were violent. Rick's mom was a drunk the whole time I knew her, as well, and she was rumored to have given her son booze in his bottle when he was an infant. Though it was probably more apocryphal than true, it gives you some idea of how dysfunctional the whole lot of them were. And that's what my mother married us into. To be honest, I still haven't forgiven her for what she put me through."
"But perhaps I would be just like Rick today if it weren't for Chulkie and the sanctuary she gave me. I don't know how I'll ever be able to repay that kind of debt. All I can really do right now is try to honor her memory as best I can."
"You're really bumming me out, here, Mr. Buzzkill." Bill chimed in, trying to steer the conversation away from such doom and gloom.
Dan laughed, pulling himself out of the quicksand he'd talked himself into. "Yeah, no kidding. Sorry about that. Let's talk about pussy again. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Amen, brother." Bill replied.