There is something in corruption which, like a jaundiced eye, transfers the color of itself to the object it looks upon, and sees everything stained and impure.
- Thomas Paine, The American Crisis
After parking the Minotaur in the garage, Dan and Bill hauled the food and beverages for the wake up to the kitchen. It took several trips to empty the car. Dan finally made the calls he'd be putting off to a few relatives and friends to let them know about the viewing, funeral and wake. He asked some of them to help spread the word so he wouldn't have to be on the phone all day.
The rain had slowed to a soft drizzle and Dan was itching to get out and walk. He found some hooded raincoats in the hall closet and they set out for a morning walk. This time they walked west on Broad Street. Dan pointed out the house Joanie grew up in as the passed it, before turning right to go down the hill at New Holland Avenue. The homes in this part of town all had a very similar look. They were modest brick and wood buildings, either single family or semi-detached. Semi-detached meant two homes would share one common wall. Every home had a covered front porch of some kind with a small front yard. The porches were all set slightly aboveground, usually three or four steps. The space in between houses tended to be long and narrow. A cement path usually led to a long back yard with a detached garage in the back. Beyond that was an alley used to drive cars to and from the garages. This design created an "H" alley pattern inside each one-block radius. There were, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule but most blocks did follow some similar pattern modified only because of geographic features or space constraints.
Bill and Dan arrived at Lancaster Avenue, with the space previously occupied by Ibach's Pharmacy. The Ibach family had operated a drugstore on this spot well before Dan was born and it had been a fixture of the town for many years. They crossed the street on the light and walked down Liberty Street between the bank and the funeral home. Grace Lutheran Church stood tall behind the bank, its tall brick facade reached about three stories to the heavens. At least that was the effect they were going for. It was built at the turn of the century. A half dozen or so wide stone steps led up to the red double doors that led into the church proper. Stained glass windows, tall and narrow, were everywhere on three sides. A large stone marker held the church's schedule of up-coming events for all to see.
Around the right side of the church on the corner of Liberty and Walnut Street stood the church offices, library and the gymnasium that doubled as a theatre. All the buildings in the church were attached and connected by hallways that resembled tunnels, although they were not underground. The entrance on Walnut was the one Dan used most often. He and his friends spent a lot of time here from Sunday school to summer theatre to church dances to Friday night basketball. The church then provided quite a few social functions in the community and at least one unintended one.
To reach the Sunday school classrooms, you walked through the gymnasium into the hallway outside the large kitchen to an open corridor that led to a maze of rooms on two stories. This area housed the many classrooms, as well as the administrative offices for the church and pastors. Each grade had its own room, and the oldest catechism class, usually the largest, used the oversized table in the kitchen. It was from here, they began the exercise in trust that was so ill conceived. Whoever created the exercise did not understand the inner workings of pre-teen boys. They spread open tables, chairs and other junk throughout the gym and then paired off the kids. One wore a blindfold and their partner led them around. The idea was to teach about trust. Instead, boys were led under a table and then told to stand up. Some walked into chairs or told to sit down where there was no chair. The teachers had been very disappointed in us but Dan thought they were wrong to expect too much.
The gym was just slightly larger than a full size basketball court and there were basketball hoops on either side. They could be stored on the ceiling via a pulley system when not in use. Every Friday evening from around dusk until about eleven, the church hosted an open house where kids of all ages could come and play basketball. They collected a nominal fee at the door, something on the order of a dime or so. They used this to defray the costs and to provide free chips and pretzels. The kitchen boasted a coke machine that dispensed seven ounce bottles for fifteen cents. Pick up games were played all night long, with players opting in and out throughout the evening. Older, better players got preference, but even younger kids could get some court time, especially if they were regulars.
At the far end of the gym was a small stage. But it boasted a multi-curtain and sophisticated lighting system that made it ideal for small plays. Shillington Summer Theatre had been putting on plays there for many years using only kids from age thirteen to twenty-five, though the average age was probably around sixteen or so. Even the directors and producers were under twenty-five though they tended to climb the ranks and were almost always the experienced older kids. Dan had been involved in about half a dozen productions from the time he was fourteen and some of his most enjoyable times there. It was a great productive way to keep the kids busy during the summer. It taught many good lessons, including responsibility, self-reliance and, of course, an appreciation for music and theatre. And they threw some of the best parties anywhere.
During the school year, the gym was used Saturday nights for church dances, which were for junior high age kids. There was a DJ audio system set-up on the stage and the gym was kept dark with a mirror ball and colored lights. The perimeter was lined with chairs on which boys and girls tended to separate doing these most awkward of years. Fast dancing was the exclusive domain of the girls as few boys had the self-confidence for it. Slow dances were more co-ed, but not by much. Some girls were bold enough to ask a boy to dance, but the boys were hard-pressed to find equal courage. One or two attempts a night was usually considered a lot. Most of the time the boys spent merely fantasizing about the mysterious girls on the other side of the dancehall's great divide. The dances ended every time with Frijid Pink's House of the Rising Sun. As soon as the last chord rang out, the bright overhead lights would be turned on, dousing the gym with light like a camera flashbulb that produced the same temporary blindness until your eyes adjusted to the new conditions. To this day, whenever Dan heard that song, on the last note his pupils would instinctively contract in anticipation of the increased light. It was positively Pavlovian.
Behind the gym was the church library, which was also where the youth group as well as other would meet. Dan and friends discovered at some point that one of the latches on an interior window was broken, which meant it could not be locked. This knowledge was used time and time again to enter the church when it was locked and no one was there. They never stole anything but just would use the gym as a place to hang out or use the bathroom. Eventually, it became a Thursday night ritual to sneak into the church and play basketball. They did this off and on for months before one Thursday a note was waiting for them at the edge of the stage. It read: "To whoever is using the gym Thursday night. Please remember to turn off the lights when you leave." The boys ran out there as fast as their young legs would carry them. It was the last time they went in through the back window.
Across the street from the church was the old post office. It was built in 1958, the year before Dan was born so it was likely many people did not consider it the old post office, but the new one. However, it was no longer the post office at all. That had been moved to a shopping center in Cumru Township in one of the new housing areas east of Shillington. Liberty ended where it met Elm Street so the turned left and then a quick right onto Miller Street. From there, it was about three blocks to State Street, which they walked past from the other direction on Monday.
After only one block on Miller, they came to a three-way intersection where Miller ended and Reading Avenue began. Here, more of the streets had all their trees, or at least more than on Dan's street. As a result, the block seemed older and somehow more distinguished than a block with mostly stumps. This where the house was located where a man attacked them with a bat during a Halloween raiding party one year. They were sneaking up to knock on the door and run away, a popular 'trick' back then when they noticed the storm door was missing its glass. At that same instant, the homeowner leapt from the bushes with a baseball bat convinced we were the culprits returning to the scene of the crime. We fled in all directions and though he'd grabbed Dan's arm pretty hard, he was able to wriggle free and join the mass exodus.
The homes here looked remarkably unchanged and if weren't for the newer model cars parked here and there, Dan could have imagined he'd stepped into a different time. Some homes already had their Christmas decorations up, even though Thanksgiving was still a few weeks away. That was a noticeable difference between small towns and big cities; the smaller the tow, the more visible and ornate the Christmas lights and other decorations. By Christmas week practically every house on the block. In the same way many men were competitive about their lawns, the decorations they put up were likewise a source of family ego that demanded ever greater expressions of Christmas spirit. It was crass commercialization at its most expressive and garishly attractive.
They reached the corner of State and turned left. Dan's house was a little past halfway on the opposite side of the block. They passed Huntzinger the bank manager's old house and the Hill house, whose daughter had been Dan's first kiss in first grade. The house next to that one, the biggest on the block, was directly across the street from Dan's house. This had been Dan's world, for better or worse, from age five until he left to join the military at eighteen. The kept walking a little further, to the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and peered down the steep hill.
This next block held almost as many memories as his own. Three friends and one enemy lived there. Jimmy Hinkle was a year or two older than Dan and a neighborhood bully. He made life difficult for the younger kids until one day when Dan decided he'd had enough. He snuck into his kitchen and grabbed as large a knife as he could find, a long wide bread knife. He tucked it in his sleeve and carefully went back outside. He found Jimmy in a back alley. When he was about ten feet or so from him, Dan pulled the knife and held it up. Jimmy saw it and immediately turned tail and ran. Dan went home and less than hour later the police knocked on our front door looking for him. Even at the age he was then, Dan thought it was ridiculous that the bully who terrorized people who were smaller and weaker than he was would so quickly run to his mommy the first time anyone stood up to him and tried to level the playing field. But that's what happened. He got in trouble and the bully got off scot free. As Dan's experience grew, he realized that's how bully operated. They rarely, if ever, took responsibility for their own actions but always were the first to complain about every little wrong done to them. To this day, Dan passionately hated bullies and could not understand why people tolerated them or what made them think bullying was a good way to live's one life. Perhaps bullies kept bullying because they were successful at it or perhaps it was the only way they could function since mental acuity seemed to be lacking in most. Whatever the reason, the kids in the neighborhood were never bothered by Jimmy after that day.
Dan and Bill turned into Pennsylvania and walked the half block to the back alley. The alleys were not paved as finely as the streets, and instead were a fine grey gravel. The garages that lined them were miniatures of the homes and were set directly against the road. Garbage cans lined the alley as well, as waste was collected here, which made the front of the homes free of garbage cans. Dan showed Bill where his car was parked when the windows were smashed by his stepfather. The middle of the alley's "H" pattern began at Dan's house and another long gravel road was perpendicular to Dan's alley. In between the brick garages were narrow walkways barely wide enough for an adult to fit through. Every few houses had no garage and there the lawn extended up to the edge of the alley.
Next to Dan's was the Douglas house, where his neighbors Doug and Vera lived. They were a generation older than Dan's parents and in fact their youngest son, Danny, was ten years to the day older than Dan. They shared a name and a birthday. Birthdays were fun. It was the only time the Dans got to say "same to you" as a response to "happy birthday." But when Dan was fifteen, Danny Douglas married an attractive single mother he'd met in New Orleans. On their honeymoon in Atlantic City, Danny drowned in the hotel swimming pool, a few blocks from the ocean. Ten years later, when Dan was twenty-five, he decided not to go swimming the entire year, just to be on the safe side.
On the other side of Dan's house was the Sieglemans, an old fashioned couple with two kids, one of whom, Tammy, was in Dan's class. The other kid, Skip, was a few years older than Dan but was one of the first kids to accept him into the neighborhood. Last he'd heard, Skip had never left home and was still there after both his parents passed away. Nobody ever saw him with girls, so people talked about Skip; because that's the way small towns are. Essentially, you have no privacy. Whatever Skip's story, he was a good person and didn't deserve to be ostracized.
Attached to the Siegelman's house was the Morgan's. Mike Morgan was the local postman and he and he wife, Mrs. Morgan, nobody ever knew her first name, were the neighborhood babysitters. They had no children of their own, and they just opened their home to all the neighborhood kids. Mrs. Morgan would always have fresh baked cookies or some other treat. And perhaps most importantly, they were the first house in the neighborhood to have a color TV, which made their house a magnet to the otherwise black and white world we knew. The Morgans were some of the warmest people Dan had ever known so it was doubly upsetting the fate that awaited them years later. After Mike retired from the post office, they bought a home in West Hills, a newer suburb in southwest Shillington. One night, several years later, they carried out a suicide pact killing one another by electrocuting themselves in the bathtub. The note they left indicated that the church they belonged to, had effectively tricked them into signing over their home and all their savings to them. When they realized what happened they'd appealed to the church's Christian values and asked them to return their home and savings. They were told their 'gift' was final and could not be undone. Then the church stopped returning their calls. When they received the eviction notice in the mail, they lost all hope as their faith was shattered. Seeing no other way and having no family to help them, they decided to end their torment themselves. It was a cruel end to such a giving couple.
Dan and Bill exited the alley on the opposite street, Reading Avenue, and walked around to the front of State Street on the same side of the block as Dan's house. The morning sun bathed the street with an amber tint. The sky glowed like a golden fire. It was such a stark contrast to the grey, wet days they'd been used to that Dan gasped aloud.
"What's the matter, buddy?" Bill asked when he heard Dan gasp.
"Check out the light." He said, pointing up at the sun.
"Wow. Makes the whole place look on fire."
"That's just what I was thinking." Dan agreed. "It just reminded me of the time I burned a hole in the carpet in the kitchen."
"How'd you manage that?" Bill egged him on. "Smoking?"
"It was in sixth grade. We were studying South America and we each had to do a report on a different country. I got Peru and decided to do mine as a news report on Peruvian television."
"You really were a geek, weren't you?" Bill chided.
"Hey, I ...." Dan began, then paused. "Yeah, I was. Still am. Deal with it. Anyway, we got points for creativity, I think. Anyway, in the course of the report I was going to make the phone ring...."
"What phone, geek boy." Bill interrupted.
"Oh, yeah. I forgot." Dan answered. "I built a news desk out of cardboard with propr, including this toy phone that I stuck on the desk. I used a magic marker to write the station logo on the phone. Anyway, the plan was to build a replica of the capitol building in Lima out of paper and then put in a box lined with tin foil. Then I'd make the phone ring, announce a breaking story that we'd break to live. I'd open the front of the diorama with the paper capitol and insert one of those long fireplace matches into the back and burin it to the ground. Did you know Peru has two official capitols? Lima and
"Geek" Bill reiterated.
"Dead cynic." Came Dan's retort.
"Fair enough." Bill agreed.
"Anyway, I was testing it a home on the kitchen table. I lit the paper building from the hole in the back and it caught on fire just fine. But I'd forgotten one thing."
"What" Bill played his part.
"I forgot that the fire would create wind and the things was so light that it lifted off and flew into the air, dropping to the floor right in front of the refrigerator. I stamped it out as quickly as I could, but it kept burning and left a black mark on the floor about the size of a grapefruit."
"You mean a burn mark?" Bill corrected.
"Yeah, but I didn't realize it at the time. I was in sixth grade. I grabbed every cleanser I could out of the basement and scribbed and scrubbed."
"But you can't clean a burn." Bill laughed.
"I KNOW!" Dan grew mock perturbed. "But I didn't know it then. And even though I couldn't 'clean' the burn mark I did succeed is making it look like anything but a burn mark. It was just this moist black spot. When my mom got home I feigned ignorance and a day or so later we had throw rugs in front of all our major appliances, I guess so it looked like that's what she intended to do all along and not like she was covering this hideous mysterious black mark. It wasn't until I was out of high school and in the army that I finally told my mother about what really happened. We shared a rare laugh over it."
"It's funny. Even though I have all this lingering resentment over our relationship during my teen years, we were very close before that. And when I'm able to look past the bad stuff, there were many warm moments during my teens as well. I just forget about them. Why is it that bad memories stick with us like they're glued there while good ones slip away like water through our fingers? The bad ones are always with me, like white noise or the sounds of the city that are constantly there but that you filter out over time. They're always there if you stop for a moment and listen, but otherwise it's just background noise. But good times are virtually gone completely from your day-to-day life. You need to consciously remember them. You have to go searching for them like an expedition, set off to rediscover them. But being home where I've been reminded of bad memories and telling you about those, the truth is the flood of memories doesn't discriminate; there are almost as many good ones, too. That was unexpected."
"My mother was trying to do the best she could but all she did was end up becoming her mother, who was a manipulative, unhappy person who rarely did anything nice for someone unless it meant they'd be indebted to her. I guess my mom couldn't escape that fate. It scares me that I might be that way today if I'd stayed here. Every now and then I'll catch myself doing something like one of them and make a conscious decision not to act that way. But if I still lived here would I even notice it? I think I needed the physical distance of living three thousand miles from home to give me the perspective to notice these patterns of behavior in my family. Of course, I had many lonely years to obsess about it and over-analyze it so that's got to be a factor, too. But ultimately, I'm who I am because of all the shit I went through."