Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.
(Abandon all hope, you who enter here.)
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
The descent into Philadelphia International Airport was happily uneventful. The plane taxied up to the gate right on schedule at 7:30. He got his bags and was at the car rental counter by eight. "The airport sure looks like they modernized it." Dan thought. Everywhere he looked, it appeared new or at the least redone. Of course, it had been so long, his mind could be playing tricks on him. After all, his mind was, in fact, playing tricks on him already, what was one more trick.
Even though he still wasn't very hungry - probably an acid reaction - he decided he should force himself to eat something but then gave up this notion because he didn't feel like waiting in line for bad airport food. Bill was still with him, although mercifully he wasn't talking right now. This was easily the weirdest thing Dan had ever experienced. It certainly didn't seem real, at least not intellectually or rationally. But there he was, looking as human as anyone else in the airport. Although only Dan seemed to able to see him. "Definitely the drugs," he mused. They hurried to pick up the car in the parking garage. Outside the morning was a dull gray with the possibility of rain hanging in the air. The car turned out to be a disappointment: a new Taurus. He couldn't remember the last time he'd driven an American car that was worth a damn. "At least it wasn't purple or red" He thought, remembering past horror rentals. Bill hopped in the passenger side and slammed the door shut. If anybody had noticed a door opening and closing by itself, they didn't let on.
They took I-95 north toward downtown Philly. There was probably a faster way off the highway, but Dan was a little rusty on getting around so he chose the way he knew. He had one quick bit of sightseeing to get out of the way before heading home. It had been twenty years since he'd been to see the clothespin. A pilgrimage was definitely in order. It was right next to City Hall on Market Street. Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin was Dan's favorite public sculpture. It was simply a forty-five foot tall metal clothespin built in 1976. Dan had a thing about clothespins. He even wore one on his collar for a few years during the 1980s just for the hell of it. Just to mess with people, really. He gave a different reason for it to every person who asked him. The clothespin itself was of the traditional wood variety with a metal clasp. He had taken it from Chulkie's cloth bag that during the summer months hung on the clothesline out in back of her house. At the time, he remembered her being somewhat confused when he asked her if he could have one of her old clothespins. But she had said yes, of course. He still had that clothespin. He kept it in a wooden box of mementos on the dresser in his bedroom.
After he couldn't stall any longer, they drove to the Schuylkill Expressway and headed northwest toward Shillington, and all that entailed. Traffic still sucked as they followed the river, that hadn't changed. At King of Prussia, they picked up the Pennsylvania Turnpike and drove in silence, with Dan alone with his thoughts. He chuckled to himself when he saw the 30-mile marker and remembered one of the few positive stories about his stepfather. Whenever they took a trip and he asked, as he inevitably would, how much farther, his stepfather would reply ”another thirty miles.” No matter how close or far away they were, it was always another thirty miles. Now he felt a sense of impending doom and was secretly happy about every little delay. He was in no hurry to get there. Plus, the effects of the trip from the night before still seemed to be with him. He was still hallucinating, after all. And he still hadn't slept all night.
They got off the exit at Morgantown and took 222 into downtown Reading, the county seat and biggest town in the area. Dan heard thunder boom behind him, and it began pouring rain almost immediately, as if a spigot had just been turned on. Lightning flashed over the valley and bathed the gray in a sudden flash of color. He slid off 222 onto Lancaster Avenue, the main road through Shillington. They were only a couple of miles from home at this point. Dan pulled the car into tye parking lot of the diner which was, in his time, Moo's Estaurant. Or rather, it was actually called Moore's Restaurant. It had this amazing moving neon sign. But the neon lights for the first "R," "E' and the second "R" were almost always not working so much so that Dan and his friends took to calling it by the letters that were left, MOO__'s _ESTAURANT. Now it was the Queen City Family Restaurant and had a rather plain white sign. But it was still a diner and Dan could not resist the lure of an untried diner. Plus, he needed to eat something and he could stall here for a little while longer.
Inside, the layout looked mostly how he remembered it. There were very few people eating there this late in the morning and he was, or rather they were, seated in a window booth. Dan ordered a large coffee and picked up the plastic menu. Every diner had the same type of menu, a paper menu in a clear plastic slipcover. In a way, it was part of their charm. Their waitress, a scary looking young woman in a dull pink and white waitress costume with a name tag announcing her as Sharon. Dan asked Sharon about the specials and she chuckled to herself, saying, "Honey, it's all special."
"O-K" Dan replied slowing, trying not to sound sarcastic which, for him, was difficult.
"New in town?" She asked.
"Sort of. What makes you think so?" Dan replied.
"I don't know." She said, snapping her gum. "You just don't look like the locals that come in here. No offense, hon."
"No, that's OK. None taken. I used to live near here. I grew up in Shillington but I haven't been back for twenty years."
"Wow. That's a long time. Why would you want to come back here? I wish I could get our of here" Sharon asked, sounding more interested.
"My grandmother. She passed away day before last." Dan said, trying not to bring the conversation to a grinding halt.
"Oh." She said, not sure what else to add. "I'm sorry."
"Hey, she was 103. She had a good life." Dan said, smiling, trying to keep things light.
"Well, welcome home. What is it that Wolfe guy said? You can never go home again." Sharon said, presumably not realizing what that meant. "What can I get you?"
A loud thunderclap covered Dan's order and he wanted until it stopped before starting over. "I'll have the breakfast plate special. Eggs scrambled, with toast and scrapple along with a small orange juice and a side of hash browns. Thanks. Oh, and can I get a refill of coffee when you get a chance." Bill ordered ... well, nothing since he was invisible and dead.
"Sure, hon." Replied Sharon.
"Damn, I wanted coffee, too" Whined Bill. "What the hell is scrapple? It it as bad as it sounds."
"Worse." Dan replied. "You take the leftover pig parts, press them into a loaf with some corn meal and then fry up a slice, sort of like spam."
"That's disgusting." Bill sniveled, his face scrunched up comically.
"A Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy. I once asked a butcher at the farmer's market what was in scrapple and he said 'everything but the oink!'" Dan chuckled. "He'd probably been asked that question a thousand times, 'cause it's too good an answer."
They talked amiably for a few more minutes. It would have been totally normal except for the fact that one of them was dead. Dan tried his best not to look like he was talking to himself as best he could. Then the food arrived, steam rising from the plate.
"Careful, hon. Hot plates. Hot off the grill." Sharon said, setting the plates down in front of Dan. The she rushed back to refill his coffee. "Anything else?"
"Nope, that should do it. Just the check when you get a chance. Thanks, Sharon." Dan said and meant it. He was pleased his first encounter home was pleasant, at least. Dan dug in and ate quickly. He was apparently hungrier than he'd realized. He was about halfway into his meal when the building began to shake fiercely accompanied by a very loud crash. In fact, it felt like an earthquake and Dan instinctively ducked under the table.
It turned out to be an 18-wheeler truck slid on the slick macadam and smacked into a building on the other side of the highway. Bill, still sitting unperturbed in the booth. "Hey, man, get up. You're embarrassing me."
Dan sat up and the building across the street burst into flames. "Finish up, let's get out of here." Bill said sharply.
"Jesus, what the hell is going on around here?" Dan wondered aloud. He scarfed the rest of his food and paid the bill. "OK, OK, let's get out of here before something else happens. Happy now?" He said, as they got up and left.
"Who's he talking to?" Sharon said, scooping up her tip as she watched Dan walk out into the storm.