Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensees
The funeral home was on the corner of a five-way intersection. Across the street was perhaps the recognizable building in Shillington, the town hall. It was a beautiful example of Georgian architecture, built in the early part of the Twentieth Century. It sat in the middle of the borough, with roads seeming to radiate out from it. A war memorial listing the names of town residents who gave their lives in world war two stood in the middle of a large front lawn. This was, in effect, the soul of the town. From the lawn, you could look down Lancaster Avenue in either direction. In addition, Liberty Street, New Holland Avenue and Philadelphia Avenue met at the edge of the lawn.
Across the road on the western side of Liberty Street was M & T Bank. Dan had opened his first savings account there was he was five, when it was the Peoples Trust City Bank. A little farther down Liberty was Grace Lutheran Evangelical Church, Dan's former church and the old post office location, now moved to the edge of town. On the eastern side was Althouse Funeral Home. Dan parked the Minotaur around the back and grabbed the bag from the back seat. He'd been here so many times over the years that it was very familiar territory. In fact, the first funeral Dan attended was when he was less than a week old. His great-grandfather passed away the day after he was born. His family liked to tell the story that his great-grandfather, upon learning that a son had been born into the family, could die in peace. For years, Dan believed he was somehow responsible for his death. It wasn't until he was older that he really understood the story and no longer felt guilty.
Dan met the funeral director, a man named Rich Buchanon at the door. He ushered him in and Dan followed him into a tacky office. They both sat down on opposite sides of a desk, and Rich Buchanon leaned back in his chair. "Let me offer you my condolences on the loss of your grandmother."
"And the bullshit begins." Dan thought, sullenly.
"Now, how may we help you." Rich oozed like a snake oil salesman.
"Well, first of all, Rich." Dan began. "It's okay if I call you Rich?"
"Yes, of course." Answered Rich.
"Well, of course, I'm upset about my grandmother. But let's face it, she was 103 and she hadn't been herself for a lot of years. She had a good life and went peacefully, in her sleep. I haven't been back to Shillington in twenty years, and that wasn't a good day, either. Now the church, the one across the street, is trying to steal from my grandmother's estate so I'm a little pissed off right now. I'm jet-lagged and I need sleep. What I really want to do is skip the niceties, though of course I appreciate them, and just get this over with." Dan continued.
"Sure, whatever you want." Rich agreed. "Did you bring the dress and the other items for the viewing?"
"Yep, here they are." Dan said, handing him the bag.
"When did you want to hold it?"
"I thought Friday for the viewing with the funeral the next day." Dan suggested.
Rich consulted his calendar. "I've got six p.m. available Friday and, let's see, how about noon Saturday?"
"Perfect. That was easy." Dan conceded. "Oh, one change from shen we spoke yesterday. Reverend Dreher will not be performing at the service on Saturday. I fired him. He may still try to come, however. If he does, do you have someone who can escort him away?"
"Sure, if that's what you want." Rich promised. "Who's going to take his place?"
"I guess I'll do it." Dan offered. "On such short notice, that's probably best. I'll ask my uncle to do the reading I was going to do and everything else will stay the same. Okay?"
"Sure, that's fine." Rich said, taking notes.
"Is there anything else?" Dan asked?"
"No, that should do it. If I need to reach you, you're staying where?" Rich inquired.
"I'm at my grandmother's house." Dan replied. He wrote the number on a piece of paper and handed it to him and stood up to leave. "Alright, I'll see you on Friday. Thanks."
"You're most welcome." Rich said as the two men shook hands.
Outside Dan wanted to wipe his hands off. "What a salesman. He's always had that sales guy manner that I just hate. It's not that I don't think he's competent. Just that too-eager-to-please style. He sounds like he'd try to sell ice cream to the Eskimos. I'm glad Chulkie pre-arranged everything. When my mother died, he tried to sell me an expensive casket, one that seals as if that somehow made things better. It was a little creepy. And he tried to add other little 'extras.'
I don't think he even remembered me. Though to be fair, it was a long time ago."
Bill laughed. "He's a demon."
It was beginning to grow dark, with the earlier fall dusk hanging in the air, casting shadows. The evening lights were beginning to come on. A large reddish glow, like a fire, could be seen in the distance on the hill beyond the city of Reading.
"What's that?" Bill asked, pointing to the flaming red spire.
"That's the pagoda." Said Dan matter of factly.
"The what?" Bill sounded confused.
"The Reading Pagoda."
"A Chinese pagoda?" Bill still sounded perplexed. "Are there many Asians in Reading. I don't think I've seen one since we got here. In fact, I can't remember seeing any minorities at all."
"Hey, we got 'em. When I was in school, there was one black family and one Japanese family. How's that for diversity?" Dan joked.
"But no Chinese?" Bill karate chopped the air.
"Not that I know of." Dan conceded. "Some white guy built it, or had it built, before World War One, around 1910, I think. We used to go parking there. It's pretty cool, actually. You want to see it?"
"I'm game. A Chinese pagoda in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country. That's weird, man." Bill offered.
"Yeah, it is." Dan agreed, steering the car onto Lancaster Avenue heading west to pick up Shillington Boulevard. "What's even stranger is that the Pagoda has come to be the symbol of Reading, even though it has virtually nothing whatsoever to do with its people, its heritage or its history."
Dan pointed out as they turned the corner where the farmer's market used to be along with the Shillington Restaurant, a family favorite for Mother's Day. It was boarded up now and looked like it had been empty for some time. It was the only building on that side of the street. After that, a creek ran parallel to the road all the way into Wyomissing, the more affluent suburb between Shillington and Reading. Expensive houses peeked through the trees as they raced down the pike. As they crested the hill, the road turned into Museum Road. The pagoda once again came into view with the lights of the small city below.
On the left, they passed the road's namesake, the Reading Museum. It had a nice collection of American art and even some exceptional European paintings. And, of course, it had a terrific collection of old German folk art from the last three centuries. But as a young boy, the highlight was always the Egyptian mummy.
The road then took them past the Reading Hospital, where his mother had worked and Dan had been born. Turning right onto Penn Avenue, the whole of the city came into view across the Penn Street Bridge. The courthouse was the tallest building, and its white granite dominated the skyline as they approached the bridge. The Schuylkill River was unseasonably high, no doubt because of the recent rain. It also appeared to be filled with debris; mostly leaves, broken twigs and other natural casualties of heavy rains. Dan laughed as the drove over the river of sticks and into the city proper. They passed the Reading Eagle building, the local newspaper, which was opposite the Peanut Bar, a local favorite. Penn Square had been blocked off so that you could no longer drive straight through town. The whole town looked like a ghost of its former self with very few businesses still there and many buildings even boarded up. It was a depressing sight. Like many older mid-size industrial towns, they were losing industries to corporate greed and hemorrhaging people at a rate of roughly ten thousand per decade. They turned the Minotaur left onto Fifth Avenue, the street that the Fifth Avenue candy bar was named for by the nearby Luden's Factory. After that, a quick right at the post office onto Court Street and started up the hill.
Court Street went past the old garage that had been owned by Dan's stepfather. There was a new name on the sign, of course, since Dan's stepfather spent the remaining years of his life behind bars. About two years ago, an anonymous envelope arrived in his mailbox that contained Rick's obituary from the Eagle. It was also how he discovered that his step-grandparents had also died, though he still didn't know exactly when. But he was relieved to see no mention of him or his mother in it.
Navigating onto Dureyea Drive, they began the winding ascent up the southern tip of Mt. Penn. After several near one-eighty turns the red glow of the pagoda rose into view. Darkness was complete now and it did resemble a great bonfire in a night sky. Dan parked the car in the almost empty lot. They got out and surveyed the area. A stone wall ran the length of the road as far as the eye could see. You could see the entire city from where they stood.
"This is a great spot to make out." Bill gushed enthusiastically.
"Yeah, it was. Probably still is." Dan admitted. "You see those lights down there?"
"What about 'em?" Bill said,nodding his head.
"They used to spell shit." Dan offered.
"What?" Bill asked, confused. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it only works in winter, like now, because the leaves are gone and as a result more lights are visible. The streetlights and the streets somehow lined up just right so that you could read the word SHIT in all caps."
"Seriously?" Bill wondered.
"Yeah, it was really obvious. No shit, pun intended." Dan joked. "It looks like the lights have changed enough that you can only see the H, I and part of the T. The S is totally gone."
Bill wasn't sure he saw it the same way Dan did, but he humored him anyway. "Can we see the pagoda up close?"
"Yeah, of course. I don't think we can go inside this late, but we can walk up to it." Dan guessed.
They turned and walked in the opposite direction toward the pagoda. The red neon never looked the same up close. It was like seeing how the magic trick was done, which always ruined the trick. They walked around it unhurriedly twice and then sat on one of the park benches.
"What's it like inside?" Bill asked, leaning back and looking up at the seven stories glowing above him.
"There's not much, actually. A gift shop, some offices. You can pay a dime or something and walk up to the top. It circles around seven times and there are window display boxes all around on each floor. Although the last time I was up there most of them were empty. There's a really cool Japanese bell at the top and some quite romantic 180 degree views. That's it." Dan explained.
"Any ghosts up there?" Bill said, pointing.
"Just one." Bill admitted, though you'll hate the story. It's another nothing happened story. This girl I was friends with and I had a picnic lunch here and ended up admiring the view at the top. I wanted so badly to kiss her but I couldn't read her. Even though we were good friends, I just couldn't tell if she was even remotely interested in me in that way, you know what I mean? I just froze because I didn't want to risk the rejection or ruin our friendship."
It was just one more deep regret in Dan's life, which like all the rest affected him on a daily basis as if each regret was a safety pin through a piece of Dan's skin. Each one caused him some pain though most of the time they produced only a constant, overall ache. It hurt, but he could manage. Then every once in a while, though thankfully it was rare, an individual pin could be felt by itself. When that happened, it was torture. Being home made dozens of these pins in his body feel like a spear. He was constantly being stabbed by a quintessence of regret. Dan couldn't wait to get out of here. He wanted to escape his torture before it grew worse still.