To know after absence the familiar street and road and village and house is to know again the satisfaction of home.
- Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons
Dan and Bill drove through the downpour up Lancaster Avenue, passing many personal landmarks he hadn't seen in two decades. They passed the church where his parents had married, the restaurant where he'd watched his dog hit by three cars, V & S Sandwich Shop, the now almost empty shopping center, and Governor Mifflin High School, where they turned left onto Waverly Street. Crossing Philadelphia Avenue where Waverly became Spruce Street, they drove up the hill to the top where the road ended and they were forced to turn left onto Fourth Street and the home that his grandfather and his three sons, one of whom was Dan's father, built. The pulled into the driveway and stopped the car. The rain was still coming in sheets and thunder could still be heard though it now sounded like it was miles away.
Chulkie's house was a two-story stone house that sat on a small terrace above the flat front lawn. Gabled windows stuck out on the second floor and stone chimneys dotted the black roof. The front had a small porch to receive people but it was almost never used. The wide driveway was set off to the right of the house and turned forty-five degrees into the two-car garage. A stone wall arced around the right perimeter growing from nothing to about ten feet where it met the side of the house proper. A stone staircase split the wall and led up to the spacious backyard and the area of the house outside that held the most memories for Dan. A long, wide covered porch ran the length of about two-thirds of the house. It still had the wooden rocking chairs and other furniture that had been there since Dan was a child.
Dan stood now on the back porch and looked out onto the backyard. This was the way practically everybody entered the house. Only salesmen and first-time visitors ever used the front door. The oak tree his parents gave each of their parents on their wedding day now towered over the house. The evergreen trees stood about four feet tall in the Christmas tree farm that bordered the back of the property. Behind them lay the now re-grown forest that Dan had dreamed of only the night before.
"Nice place." Bill spoke finally.
"Thanks. My grandfather built it himself with the help of his three sons. You know, my dad and his brothers, my uncles. They're all gone now; wives, one kid, all gone. I'm the only one left except for a few distant cousins or something somewhere." Dan said, feeling talkative all of a sudden.
"Should we go inside?" Bill asked.
"Can't you just walk though the wall?" Dan chided him.
"Everybody's a comedian." Bill shot back.
Dan pulled the key out of his pocket and opened the back door, pushing it in with a shove that banged it against the inside wall. They entered and the storm door slammed behind them on it's spring. They were in the kitchen. A musty smell hung in the air.
"What's that smell?" Asked Bill "She didn't have cats they forgot about, did she?"
"No. Dogs. But they were never allowed in the house. I'm pretty sure it's just because it's been closed up for a few months. Can you help me open some windows to air it out?" Dan asked.
"I'm dead, not helpless." Bill said testily and began walking the house opening windows a crack.
They brought the suitcases in and searched unsuccessfully for food. "I guess they got rid of everything when she went to the home." Dan explained. "I'm going to try and get some sleep. What about you? Do you sleep?"
"Only if I feel like it. Don't worry about me, I'll find something to amuse myself with. You run along." Bill said condescendingly.
Dan put his bags in the master bedroom and crawled into his grandmother's old bed. He could hear the rain pounding the roof and tried to sleep for the first time since three a.m. Sunday morning, almost thirty-six hours ago. He tried to sleep but found he couldn't. He tried some more. And some more but he just lay there staring at the ceiling.
A loud thunderclap that sounded like it was in the backyard woke him with a start. Dan realized he must finally have fallen asleep. He felt relatively refreshed and looked outside expecting to see only darkness. But it was still a dull light gray. He looked at his watch and discovered he'd only been asleep about half an hour. "Damn" He thought and walked out to the living room to find Bill.
"Couldn't sleep?" Bill remarked as Dan came into the living room and plopped himself into one the oversized upholstered chairs in front of the picture window that overlooked Fourth street below.
"About thirty minutes." Dan answered. "Now I'm wide awake again."
"You wanna go for a walk. See the old haunts. No pun intended." Bill smirked.
"Not in this rain, I don't. Maybe later." He said.
"Wait a minute." Bill said, holding up his hand to silence Dan. He stood there staring at his dead friend wondering when the hallucination would end. It was weird to think of a dead guy he'd only met once when he was still alive as a friend. But then that's the kind of day Dan was having. Then he heard it, or rather its absence. The rain had stopped and the sun was poking through the clouds washing away the dull gray with cautious sunlight.
"You didn't do that, did you?" Dan asked.
Bill laughed. "Nope. I just knew the schedule, that's all."
"Alright, let's go. I'll show you the sights. It won't take long." Dan offered.
"And I'll show you a few things." Bill countered.
They left the house and walked down past the park and the swimming pool. The toboggan slide was still there behind the ice rink but the pool looked somehow smaller than he remembered it. Otherwise, it looked the same though perhaps slightly more run down. How many summer days had he spent at this pool from elementary school through junior high? Thousands? He didn't how they did it now, but in his day you bought a summer pass that cost around six or seven dollars. They peered in the chain link fence at the three empty pools. There was an Olympic-sized rectangular pool, a baby-sized circle and the largest pool, which was shaped like a fat boomerang or a deformed lima bean. At one end was the two diving boards, one at ground level and the other much higher. It was even called the high divey, and he almost never used it. Dan's mother had made him quite fearful of it from as early as he could remember. She had broken her back on it when she was a teenager and spent the better part of a summer in traction. Dan's mother was very good at transferring her own irrational fears and superstitions to others. To this day, Dan still couldn't quite bring himself to cut his nails after dark, for instance. There were others like that, almost to numerous to count.
To enter the pool grounds, you went through the showers and were expected to rinse off before going in the pool. Almost no one ever did, though, for reasons Dan never understood. Just to your left was the snack bar that carried all manner of kid delights; ice cream, candy, soft pretzels, potato chips, soda, tastykakes, you name it. From there at the top of a small hill, you could survey the whole park so it was the place to congregate. From there you could see who else you knew that was there, where there was an open spot of grass to put your towel and clothes and where the bullies and older kids were that prudence demanded should be avoided. This was also where, as young boys, he and his friends got their first real look at near naked women. Older girls in bikinis occupied much of their adolescent attention. After age ten or eleven that became the primary reason for spending most of their summer days there. Once you hit sixteen and could drive, the swimming pool lost its allure as you could since you could find girls anywhere.
They drifted down the road past the tennis courts and crossed Philadelphia Avenue, turning left and walking west on the north side of the avenue. Bill lagged behind, leaving Dan to himself for a change. Straight ahead was Mifflin Park, a newer housing development, relatively speaking, where three of his relatives still lived; and aunt and uncle, a widowed uncle, and a second cousin all on his mother's side. Dan imagined he'd have to see them at some point. But it could wait. He needed to get his bearings first and the walk was turning out to be a good idea. Memories were pouring into him like a damn had broken. Everywhere he looked, long dormant events and people popped into his head. Like phantoms of his past he saw superimposed over the canvas of the present now before him. Time merged into a weird loop he could not escape. "Fuck!" Dan yelled.
Bill was startled had to run to catch up. "What? What's the matter?"
"So when is this trip going to end. When are you going to go away?" Dan sputtered.
Bill looked visibly hurt. "What's the matter, you don't like goat boy?" He said in a mock wounded voice.
"No, man, that's not it. I really do like you. I always thought you should have been the voice of our generation. Unfortunately, most of us were distracted by Ms. Pac Man and American Gladiators. I saw your show over the years, usually in San Francisco, maybe a dozen times. At every one of those shows at least one person and often more left, presumably because they were offended or ... who knows. To me that was surest sign you were on the right track. But even though you were the dark poet, beezlebozo and preached the comedy of hate you were actually quite hopeful, in the end. 'Ray of fucking sunshine,' as I heard you say. You were never a hypocrite, at least as far as I know. You were never a shill for anything. What I saw on stage seemed like it was really you. Not some bullshit stage persona you plastered on for the fans. And it seemed like you were actually trying to help people, I don't know, evolve, I guess. Or at least to look at their lives in a new way. If you tell me that was all an act, man, I'm going to fucking kill you. Again." Dan said, starting to get worked up.
"Damn, man. Somebody who gets it. That's really great. Thanks. I appreciate it. No, that was pretty much me up there. I didn't hold too much back. A few personal things; relationships, my family, like that. But otherwise I did see myself as a kind of preacher." Bill blushed.
"Did you ever see that movire, The Matrix, with Keanu Reves." Dan asked. "Wait, no that would have come after your untimely departure."
"You can say died." Bill told him. "Words only hurt the living. You can say snuffed it, cashed in, bought the farm, kicked the bucket, I don't care."
"What, are you George Carlin now?" Dan laughed.
"Hey, don't knock George, man. He was a genius." Bill scolded. "He was no Woody Allen, but he was good. Broke down a lot of early barriers. Along with Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and later Richard Pryor. But, the movie, yeah I saw it. Liked the concept. It kinda fell apart by the last one, though."
"Yeah, it did." Dan agreed. "But the idea that the world is illusory and that it's not how we see it? That's a powerful idea and a bit closer to the truth than most people are willing to admit. I mean, forget the living in goop hooked up to wires with your consciousness stuck in a virtual reality software program. That's pure fantasy. A society that's owned by 1% of the population who rule it not by force, but by propaganda so clever and powerful that most people refuse, absolutely just refuse, to even think about it? Now that's real. That's the world we live in. And yet even though the truth gets out, in fact is told in books, movies, newspapers and by word of mouth, many just don't get it. It's simply easier to accept convenient fictions than hard truths. Take Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, almost universally hailed as a great achievement. Or James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me. Both make no bones about the lies rampant in our history books, especially those used to educate us as children. Yet the lying continues unabated. No one so much as raises an eyebrow over it. We know we're lied to and do nothing about it. Why?"
Dan continued. "Or take people like Noam Chomsky, Greg Palast or Michael Parenti. Even so-called liberal journalists and others spit venom at the very mention of their names, especially Chomsky. Why? What's the danger in thinking beyond the confines of a generally accepted range of discourse? I mean, why the hell should there even be such a notion? Yet I've recently seen supposedly liberal thinkers actually call Chomsky a traitor and other unsavory names for accusing our government of lying to us and keeping things from us. Yet we know that's what is being done. Duh! It's not really a secret, is it? His critics seem to be upset not because he's lying but because he's supposedly taken it too far. Like you can go too far in a society that's supposed to be free. That's the point of freedom of speech, or at least it should be. Once you start imposing limits about what's acceptable to talk about or how far you can go in talking about them, then you're not really free any longer. But then, that is the point, isn't it? Our freedom is illusory. It will only stretch so far. Then, I guess, it will break. You can see it every time someone tries to step out of line a little bit. Look at Eugene Debs, or more recently Bill Maher. That's a telling example. What happens to people who are too critical of our government? They become un-American even though it's that very ideal of being able to criticize our government that makes us free in the first place. It was particularly ugly in Maher's case because the U.S. government was saying we had to liberate Iraq and make it a free country like ours. So when Maher exercised that freedom we needed to give Iraq, was he applauded for showing the world how a free country can tolerate differences of opinions? Nope. Fired. Now that's democracy in action."
"Wow, all I have to do is wind you up, eh?" Bill laughed. But you're right. I agree with you. That is one of the big hypocrisies. You know, I bet we could have been good friends if I, you know ..."
"Were still alive?" Dan interrupted. "You know, we actually met once before. Before you died, I mean. It was about a year before at Cobb's in Fisherman's Wharf. I'd had a job interview that afternoon and didn't have time to change and went to your show in a suit. When I talked to you after the show, you accused me of being a representative for the NRA sent to infiltrate the show."
"Sorry about that." Bill apologized sheepishly.
"No, it's cool. You were just kidding. I laughed, too. I don't know why people still wear suits, anyway. They're ridiculous, in a way. They serve no real useful purpose. They don't make us work harder or more serious or anything. We should be able to evolve beyond them but traditions die very slowly, don't they? And the older the tradition, the more entrenched it is making it almost impossible to get past." Dan continued.
They'd been walking along Mifflin Boulevard heading north towards the high school. Dan led them on a short cut across the field at the back side of the school building, which led them to the bus drop-off loop out front and toward Waverly Street. The high school, built in the early sixties, looked as dated now as it did when Dan went there the following decade. When Dan was a high school senior, some clever person or persons rounded up a couple dozen real estate for sale signs and put them on this front lawn as an April Fools' Day prank. It made the cover of the local paper and was the envy of practical jokers everywhere. Dan and his friends' only complaint was that they hadn't thought of it themselves.
Further down Waverly they walked past the large open field where the band practiced. It was also the field where they deposited DiFazio's Porsche, Dan suddenly remembered. Alfonso DiFazio was in Dan's class and a complete asshole. As a sophmore, he had letters sent from an attorney to four seniors who were picking on him threatening lawsuits if they didn't stop. That, of course, only upped the ante. Those four begged off and dozens of their friends rushed in to fill the void. Al had a porsche 914 that his rich daddy bought him for his sixteenth birthday. It was one of those low, flat-topped porsches with a VW engine. It weighed, as cars go, next to nothing. A bunch of people, Dan included, picked up the car and carried it into the middle of the field, recently muddied by days of rain. DiFazio was apoplectic. It was a beautiful moment to see him deflated, even if was only temporary. He was just one of those people who could not contain his enthusiasm for himself, however misplaced it might be. Dan heard he'd run for some small public office after graduation, which seemed appropriate. Bureaucracy and local goverment would have suited DiFazio, where advancement was rarely predicated on talent but more often on whining persistence and who you knew.
They crossed over Lancaster Avenue at the spot where the Yoder kid had been killed by a big truck when Dan was eight. The Yoder kid, Dan could not now remember his first name, was maybe five at the time. The family left town a few months later. Their house was the second one on the block on Waverly just after Walnut Street. He'd had an older brother around Dan's age and they'd played together before the accident but he couldn't remember much about him now. Just the pall that fell over the neighborhood right after it happened. Nobody knew what to say to the remaining family or how to console them so people just avoided them at a time when they probably needed support the most. It was an example of small town life at its worst.
Further down Waverly was the house that every kid in the neighborhood targeted each Halloween. An old man lived there, and for every knock at the door he would dash out and chase the kids down the block. But he ran at what could best be termed a snail's pace. He quite possibly may have been the slowest runner in all of human history. Any and every kid could outrun this man. The kids would soon tire of how easy it was to escape and would turn and run toward him, passing him by as he came toward them. He would then slowly turn and continue the chase in the other direction. This would continue until the kids would grow so bored they'd leave. No one had ever seen him give up the chase. Ever.
Turning left onto Pennsylvania Avenue, Dan passed the spot where he watched the bird fly at full speed into a car's front window killing itself instantly. He began noticing how many fewer trees there were now compared to when he lived here. At that time, every street was lined with large trees with one in front of every house. They were planted in the roughly three-foot grass strips in between the curb and the sidewalk. So many leaves dropped at this time of the year that the town sent around a giant truck-sized vacuum to suck them up. Leaves were raked into piles on each block and a tractor made the rounds pulling the leaf vacuum. Now each block only a had a couple of trees on both sides making the neighborhoods seem emptier than Dan remembered them. Dead leaves littered the lawns, sidewalk and curbs. There were still stumps and marks where the trees had been making the streets seem scarred with the ghosts of autumn, phantom trees still stood in Dan's imagination like so many other lost memories. What trees remained were half empty from fall's purge so they looked vaguely skeletal. The leaves still clinging to life were not long for this world, their bright red, yellow and orange hues foretelling their inevitable descent. Perhaps he was still hallucinating, but everywhere he looked Dan saw - actually saw - people, places and events as they were when they happened. Like before and after pictures or that series of books, Then and Now, where a transparency of today was laid over a picture of yesterday so that the old and new merged in one view. It was disconcerting, to say the least, but oddly comforting. There had been horrors here to be sure, but also simple pleasures long forgotten. The high drama of tragedy had long ago won the battle for retained memories. But now, faced with seeing it all again, the balance of power was shifting. Was this why the longer you stayed in one place, the harder it was to leave it? Dan wondered. Was that how people came to be born and die within a few miles radius? They didn't want to leave the comfort of familiar memories?
Just past the alley leading to the back of Dan's old house they finally came to State Street and stopped at the corner. To the right the road dropped sharply for a full block. That was the street that the police barricaded every time there was a heavy snow so it could be used for sledding. All the kids for blocks around flocked to Dan's street every snow day. At the top of this hill it became flat again for the four blocks back to Lancaster Avenue and the junior high school. The first block contained the house where Dan grew up. It was in the middle of the road and like most of the houses on the block was a semi-detached brick home with a large wooden front porch. Most of the porches now looked empty and unused. In spring and summer they would have canvas awnings for shade but in November they wore grey metal skeletons, like the trees without their leaves. There was a time when walking the block it was impossible not to find neighbors sitting on their porches, talking and laughing or crying and yelling. Back then the block was alive with these sounds whereas now it was silent and felt as impersonal here as any city Dan had lived in since.
Dan stood at the foot of the cement steps staring up at his boyhood home. How many games of stepball had been played here? How many times had he raked the leaves that littered the ground? How many times had he shoveled the snow on his side and his elderly next-door neighbor, Doug Douglas? The ugly horse and carriage adorned storm door still hung on the front door. After his mother's death the house had been sold to another nurse at the nearby hospital where she'd worked most of her adult life. Dan hated that door. It replaced the one his stepfather tore from its hinges during one of his many violent and destructive episodes. The new one was metal and lacked that distinctive slamming noise that only a wooden door can produce. The green Astroturf his mother had been so fond of still covered the wooden porch. All things considered, it had held up fairly well and showed little sign of wear, except for directly in front of the door.
The familiar block looked the same and very different at once. There were only two trees lest, both on his side with none remaining across the street. All the houses were the same with fewer cosmetic changes than he would have predicted. They heard thunder in the distance and decided to keep moving up State Street. It was only a few blocks back to the main road, Lancaster Avenue. This was the route he'd taken countless times to junior high school and later high school, at least until he was old enough to drive. The blocks all resembled one another. Only the Yahner's house on the northwest corner of Walnut Street looked different. The stairs leading up to the oversized front door followed the corner itself, forty-five degrees from either street where the house stood. It otherwise looked like any of the neighborhood residences. Decades before, however, before the time of convenience chains and 24-hour grocery stores, this had been Yahner's, a true neighborhood family grocery. It had been small inside but was packed with every essential you could imagine. They stocked every kind of candy a young boy could ever hope to eat along with gum, baseball cards, superballs, clackers, and all manner of childish delights. In essence, it was a wonderland Dan and his friends visited nearly every day either before or after school, and sometimes both. The Yahner's were a middle-aged couple that ran the store and they knew every kid by name.
A block later they were again on Lancaster Avenue. Across the street had been the original high school when his parents were high school sweethearts, and which was the junior high school when Dan went there. It had been a narrow two-story brick building that took up the better part of a block. Along the top of the building was the motto "Learn to Live, Live to Learn" split into two halves, with one part on each of the two ends of the building. The building was gone but they appeared to have salvaged the stones with the cheesy motto and put them in roughly the same place on the new middle school that now stood in its place.
Dan and Bill crossed the avenue, walking around the middle school to again pick up Waverly. From there it was a straight shot up the hill to Spruce and Chulkie's house on Fourth. It was starting to drizzle so they picked up the pace until increasing rain forced them to find shelter under a carport near Second Street.
"So is that it?" Bill asked. "The whole town, is that it?"
"Almost." Dan chortled. "No, actually there's a bit more. It is only one square mile, however."
"Seriously?" Bill asked incredulously.
"Yeah." Dan laughed. "It really is that small. They stood there watching the rain wondering what to do next, how long to wait there before sprinting the rest of the way home. A door banged shut behind them and Dan turned in its direction. "Great." He said under his breath.
A man was coming toward them from the house attached to the carport with several more watching from the door. "Hey, what are you doing out there." The stranger growled. As he grew closer, his face distorted with recognition until his mouth hung open by the time he reached them. "Oh, my god! Dan? Is that you, Dan?"
"Hey, Jamie. How you doin'?" Dan said, extending his hand to who, he now realized, was Jamie Faust, an old acquaintance.
Jamie shook his hand wildly. "I'm good, man. What are you doin' here?" Then he yelled to the watchers at the window, waving them out of the house. "Hey guys, come here. It's Dan Pilger." Turning back to Dan, Jamie continued. "How long has it been, man? Twenty-five years?"
"Twenty-five, maybe a little more." Dan agreed. He had not seen Jamie or the others coming out of the house to greet him since he'd left high school. Jamie was a year younger than Dan, as was Barry Yetter. Mike Morrow and Tom Eshelman were both in Dan's class. They had all been stars of the cool crowd and had played on the football team together. Jamie had also been in band with Dan and so they had known each other pretty well. Though they had never been very close, they did get along and considered each other at least casual friends. They had occasinally done things together, such as played tennis, cruised around, and went to parties. Mike, Tom and Barry had thought of Dan as a friend of a friend and so had treated him with a certain respect and tolerance which they might not otherwise have afforded him. "It was curious to see them still together, thick as thieves." Dan thought to himself.
"Hey, Dan." They said in unison, thrusting their hands toward him.
Dan shook each of their hands and answered their questions about what he'd been doing since high school. He avoided the reasons he'd left but told them of California and his life there. The reason the four ex-jocks were all together on a Monday afternoon, it turned out, was that they all worked together at the New Holland Textile Plant that was in downtown Reading, not far from the diner where Dan and Bill, well just Dan, had eaten that morning. Apparently the storm and particularly the truck smashing into the building across the street had knocked out one of the power grids. And that grid provided power to their plant so they'd gotten the day off. It seemed vaguely creepy to Dan that they not only had remained such good friends but that they were so inseparable as to all get jobs at the same place. Not much ambition in that decision, he imagined. How many times had he heard that story about high school being the best days of certain people's lives? Inevitably, those people had been popular and did nothing worthwhile afterwards. "These four typified that notion perfectly." Dan thought. Whatever promise or possibility made popularity desirable was rarely delivered. So much so that it was a mystery why popularity itself was so seductive. Perhaps long range planning was not possible without maturity. Who knows? Doesn't everyone want to be popular? Yet its rewards often seemed short-lived and often built adults void of character. Practically everyone who Dan thought was interesting had some sort of trauma in their childhood. It seemed that very real pain was what produced character. In the same way that perfect beauty was boring because interest was found only in the flaws, a happy childhood, including the momentary advantages of popularity, created only empty, uninteresting and backward-looking adults. You had to know unhappiness to recognize its opposite. The less harm, the less character, the less opportunity to grow and to create incentives for change and achievement. It was counterintuitive and although there were exceptions, to be sure, it certainly seemed more or less true, at least in Dan's experience. So perhaps it was actually better to not have been popular in school after all.
The rain had started to subside again and Dan said his goodbyes to Jamie and company. Jamie promised Dan he'd see him at the funeral. Bill and Dan continued up the hill and were back in Chulkie's house in only a few minutes time.
"What's the deal with the jocks? Bill asked. "How was the first encounter?"
"Weird. But not bad." Dan replied. "Jamie and I had been OK friends in school. But he and his football buddies back there; Tom, Barry and Mike; they were kings of their little world in high school. They ruled, you know what I mean. Now look at them. Working in a factory. Still clinging together. For what? Mutual protection? Prop each other up with the nostalgia that they used to be somebodies? They're really kind of sad and pathetic. But Jamie, at least, wasn't a bad person at heart. I think he just got swept away by all of the trappings of power and never found his way back to reality. And now he's stuck. Him I feel sorry for. Which is a bit condescending on my part, I know. But between you and me, that's how it looks."
"I won't tell anyone." Bill promised.
"Like you even could." Dan countered.
"What, you think I can't haunt somebody else?" Bill said sarcastically.
Dan shrugged his shoulders in response. "You want a cup of coffee? It'll take the chill off."
"Yeah, sure. Black."