A preoccupation with the future not only prevents us from seeing the present as it is but often prompts us to rearrange the past.
- Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind
The late morning sun was rising in the sky and it was surprisingly warm in its glow. The shaded areas were still quite cold and the contrast was a little eerie. Stand in one place where the sun reached you and you were pleasantly warm. Take one step to the right where the sun no longer touched you and you were uncomfortably cold. As you walked along you were alternately warm then cold then warm again.
Dan took Bill up to Walnut Street, which was parallel to State Street and they headed west toward the creek that ran along Museum Road. On the corner of Walnut and Reading Avenue stood the weird house where the missionaries lived, not two blocks from Dan's house. A missionary couple, recently returned from Africa, moved into the house when Dan was six or seven. Somehow they enticed a dozen or more of the neighborhood kids around Dan's age into their basement for daily bible study classes in the early summer weeks after school had finished. Dan vaguely recalled cookies were involved but the couple was generally harmless. When Dan's mother and other neighborhood moms discovered what was going on, a hue and cry went up throughout the neighborhood. Fears of abduction, molestation or worse were fanned by the couples' indifference to neighborhood criticism. They simply maintained they were doing the lord's work, which outraged those who had their children were lured into their basement without parental consent. In truth, anything could have happened in that basement and in a less innocent time, perhaps it would have been worse. Dan could not understand what all the fuss was about and his parents made him go to summer bible school at their normal church for several weeks.
Further down Walnut Street was the Griffith home, where Dan's little league coach had lived. He was a miserable little man that Dan held a deep grudge against. Growing up with an alcoholic stepfather and no real male role models, no one had taught Dan to play baseball. No one played catch or pitched balls to him so he'd learn to hit the ball over the fence. Dan's biological father had been an athlete and Dan had some natural ability but with no training and low self-esteem it was completely untapped. Dan played little league for four years, third through sixth grade enduring Jim Griffith's coaching style. Coach Griffith had two children of little league age, and, of course, they started every game. Dan not only never started, he rarely ever played in a game. The idea of little league was for every kid to get a chance to play but that was not Coach Griffith's style. In fact, when Dan's inexperience and lack of training made him the object of ridicule, Coach Griffith not only did not put a stop to it, but instead actively encouraged the other kids to make fun of Dan, as indeed he himself did at every opportunity. It was a miserable experience but he refused to quit mostly out of spite. Dan believed a just god would reserve a special place in hell for people like Coach Griffith. It was just one of billions of injustices in the world that made it impossible for Dan to believe there was a god.
They headed up Wyomissing Avenue the five blocks to Lancaster Avenue and turned onto the main thoroughfare. About half the businesses were new and the other half had been there forever. The next block held many memories for Dan. The elementary school was now an office building a dozen small office tenants. The macadam playground that ringed the building was now used for parking. The corner itself at Lancaster and Sterley was where the kids crossed the street. In the morning and afternoon, the Chief of Police in his white hat (the rest wore black), personally acted as crossing guard. Chief DeHart made it his personal responsibility to ensure the safety of the town's future from the busiest, most dangerous road.
Unfortunately, he wasn't able to stop the bully who beat up Dan a block out of sight from the Avenue. He was about eight or nine and carrying home a display of miniature flags he'd used in a school report. A bigger kid he didn't even know stopped him on the street and demanded he hand over the flags. When Dan refused, he punched him in the gut, took them and ran off.
He'd waited on the stone fence in front of the school, as he often did, with his friend Thomas McNamara. For reasons unclear to Dan, Mac went to this elementary school at his mother's insistence even though he should have gone to a different one. As a result, his mother picked him up everyday but about an hour after school let out. Dan felt bad that he'd have to sit there alone so he'd wait with him and they'd talk. Then his mom would pick him up and Dan would walk home alone. It was on one of those days the bully jumped him.
Mac had been one of Dan's best friends in elementary school. In first grade, Mac told stories about a group of puppies with the names of his friends, including Dan. His teacher, Miss Rheingold, had been Dan's father's teacher as well. Once, during one of the many occasions Dan could not stay in his seat and got up and walked around in the middle of class, Miss Rheingold had tied him to his chair with a length of rope. Dan stood up with the chair tied to him and walked around. Miss Rheingold retired the following year.
Dan's fourth grade teacher taught him the valuable lesson of discrimination. She actively discriminated against the boys and appeared to believe the girls could do no wrong. She was even older than Miss Rheingold and wore colors ranging from charcoal grey to black. She was the stereotypical schoolmarm and like many such teachers Dan encountered, had grown to hate children. In her case, it was limited to her male students who she believed were all satan's spawn. It would have been funny had it not been so blatantly obvious that she was grading in this gender biased manner as well. Up until that point, Dan had loved school but after that year it lost its magic. He had decent teachers after that year, even a few favorites, but none could undo the damage of that one hateful, intimidating, pernicious woman. She had, in effect, ruined school for Dan. Did she know that was the effect she'd have or was she simply beyond caring about the students at all.
Across the Avenue from the elementary school had been Sieger's Variety Store, one of the last of the great mom and pop grocery/convenience stores. About the size of a small home, they carried about ten times the average modern convenience store. In addition to virtually any grocery item you might want, they had gift items, hobbies, toys, and a newsstand. And best of all, although sometimes the same was worst of all, everyone there knew Dan's name and vice versa. The downside was going in only to find his mother had previously revealed some embarrassing development in Dan's life that he would have preferred remained private. But now it was gone and with it a part of society was sorely missing. The impersonalness of modern business has led to a standard of service so low it's barely there. This has been bad both for ordinary consumers and the employees themselves who are treated like interchangeable commodities with no intrinsic value. As a result, price is virtually the only thing people shop based upon. They may claim to want to good service, helpful staff, etc. but the overwhelming success of Wal-Mart and other discount chains proves otherwise. People have been conditioned to care only about price and thus very few people even insist on being treated well. Marketing had convinced them that they can't have both and thus have willingly given up civility. Never mind that this has led to the destruction of whole towns due to the predatory practices of these discount chains. The same people who might mourn the passing of a vibrant downtown filled with locally owned businesses will travel an extra fifteen minutes or more out of town to save a few pennies thinking they're smart to be such price conscious shoppers. The fact is that decision is directly responsible for their local business closings, rising unemployment and ultimately higher prices once the chain store has effectively put all competition out of business. All to save a few pennies. But until people are truly willing to put their money where their mouth is and actually spend a little more on local goods and services then the landscape of America's small towns will continue to be destroyed by the very people who care most deeply for their loss. Dan figured they get what they deserve for being so selfish and shortsighted.
At the end of the block was Anthony's Barber Shop and the pub they stopped in Wednesday night. They began the slow climb up Miller Street past Dan's Aunt Helen's house. A block past her house, Dan turned into the alley that had been his shortcut home since forever. This was the alley he knew almost as well as his own. He had not been down it in thirty years. The ghost of Ellen Eisenbrown had been lingering here for over thirty-eight years. Ellen Eisenbrown was a perfectly nice person who had the unfortunate luck to look different. She wasn't a barbie doll but instead had dark olive skin, curly hair and was considered the most unattractive girl in Dan's class in elementary school. During Valentine's Day at school when it was common to exchange cards with virtually all members of the opposite sex, she would often get only a handful of cards. The cruelty of children was hard to take, but was even more difficult when Dan recalled he too had acted cruelly toward Ellen. One day, when Dan was in the fifth grade, he was taking the alley shortcut when he happened upon Ellen also walking the alley. He stopped to talk to her and during that fateful conversation somehow he told her that, in effect, even though he had nothing against her that he couldn't risk being nice to her in public for fear of what his friends might say. They never spoke again. He had no idea what her fate had been or where she was today. But that day continued to nag at him as one of the lowest things he'd ever done. That he was only ten at the time and immature for his age didn't make Dan feel any less guilty about it. And walking the alley again now made the ghost of her memory seem omnipresent in the air around him, taunting him. He tried to pick up the pace, but Bill lingered, making a hasty retreat all but impossible.
"Come on, slowpoke." He said, egging Bill on.
"Feeling guilty?" Bill asked.
"Yeah. I am." Dan admitted.
"Good." Bill chided him. "It was a shitty thing to do."
"I know. I even knew then it was a shitty thing to do and I've been beating myself up about it ever since."
"So why do you think you did it then?" Bill wondered aloud. "You don't seem like that sort of shallow person."
"I don't know." Dan answered with a sigh. "My only real defense is that I was myself not all that popular and like anyone else with self-esteem issues I wanted desperately to be liked so I thought throwing my support for the most unpopular girl in school would undermine my own. That's not an excuse, just a reason, and it certainly doesn't make matters any better. Frankly, it makes me feel worse, to tell you the truth. If anything positive came out of it, it was that I never did that again. I may not have become the champion of the underdog but I also never again was their enemy, either. In fact, many of my later friends were cast-offs from the social hierarchy. And while I was never truly popular in school, I was never a social pariah, either. But, of couse, I couldn't predict the future and that wasn't my plan but I did make a conscious effort after that incident to not treat people based upon their perceived class in society, or at least in social hierarchies like school, church, etc. So I guess it did inform my way of thinking afterwards."
"Okay, okay. Stop crying about it already, will you." Bill interrupted. "How do you know she wasn't unpopular for other reasons and you just thought it was because of her looking different? Maybe some people really are born to lead, others follow, and other stay out of the way."
"You don't really believe that, do you?" Dan asked, looking at him incredulously.
"No. I don't know. Probably not." Bill hedged. "In theory I do believe we're all the same and should have the same opportunities, etc. I believe that none of us are better than any other yet at the same time it's hard to deny that there are some idiotic people in the world. And yet we all have our idiotic moments, don't we? What if we're only witnessing the stupid moments of truly gifted geniuses when we judge someone harshly based on a limited encounter? Of course, there are people that when you get to know them have far too many of those less than stellar moments to be anomalies so really that theory doesn't work, even in just my experience."
"I know how you feel." Dan agreed. "I go back and forth on this one, too. I hate the idea of class yet it's always there hanging in the air. People with money today consider themselves better than everybody else in the same way the aristocracy used to in centuries past even though there was absolutely no evidence to support it then, either. But opportunity and access to resources will make up for personality defects every time. It's always been more important who you know than what you know and it likely will always be that way, at least without a radical shift in societal thinking. But the more people you come in contact with, the more you also can't help thinking some people really are not gifted or talented or whatever and would likely get left behind even if they did have the same opportunites as everyone else. But until that's a reality how can you ever know? I think it's safe to say that not everyone can be Einstein or Da Vinci. There has to be a range of intelligence, it just can't be a flat line with everyone having the same potential. That just wouldn't make sense and it runs contrary to basic observation. In the same way, athletic ability or a singular aptitude like being good with numbers is not the same in every person, regardless of environmental factors it must be the same with general intelligence, too."
"There certainly do seem like there are a lot of idiots in the world." Bill admitted. "But you're right that it's hard to know what made them that way. Was it preordained or was it because of poverty, geography, apathy, their parents and social group, schooling or lack therefore, religious bias or whatever? I used to rail about them in my act but I also believed there was a basic goodness in people that you could reach if you tried hard enough. I think I had to believe that or it would have made getting up on stage each night unbearable. I had to think it was possible to reach at least one of them. If I could change the way just one person thought and made them question the world or look at it in a different way, then I felt I was successful."
"Yes!" Dan exclaimed. "That's it. It's that dichotomy that makes it so confusing and also so easy for the power structure to maintain control by manipulating that uncertainty. If they can convince people they deserve their lot in life, they won't try to change their circumstances and will in fact become more passive. I think religion is perfect at doing just that, especially the ones that preach being meek and waiting for your rewards in the next world. The less engaged each individual is in the world, the better it is for the people in charge because the less they'll question what's going on. It's like you always said, 'go back to bed America.'"
"Yes, but you can't be responsible for every one of them and that's why you shouldn't feel bad anymore about what you said to a girl in this alley thirty-eight years ago. So knock it off feeling sorry for yourself. You can't fix it, you can't make it right and you can't even make amends so you have to let go of it." Bill admonished.
"I guess you're right." Dan reluctantly agreed. "Let's get back to the house. We still have a lot to do today."
They moved through the alley and came out onto Broad Street, turning left toward home. They passed two homely looking women with large features. As they passed them, Bill chuckled to himself, although Dan heard him.
“What.” He asked.
“Are you kidding? They were both guys, either transvestites or transsexuals." Bill said, matter of factly.
"Really?" Dan asked rhetorically. "Well I guess that would explain the ugliness factor. But it's not the sort of thing I'd expect to see here in Shillington. This is a pretty conservative place."
"And Britain isn't full of S&M freaks." Bill countered. "The more repressive the society, the more closeted the fun. There's all kinds of people everywhere. They just stay more hidden in certain places. You can't force people to abandon their nature. You can only force them to keep it hidden for fear of being ostracized or worse."
As they neared Spruce Street and the turn to Chulkie's house, one of the houses on the left-hand side of the block had a sign in the window that read:
LEARN YOUR FUTURE
MON-FRI 8-4, SAT 12-4
On the porch were several people, sitting on wicker chairs. They were talking amongst themselves and sipping from mugs that had hot steam swirling out of them. Bill took no notice of them at all until they grew closer to the porch. They were all pointing at Bill, as if they saw him and began whispering to each other.
Dan stopped and stared up at them. They were all wearing the same t-shirt, grey with white lettering he couldn't make out from where he was standing. But on the back was a drawing of a man weeping. "What are you pointing at?" Dan asked.
"You've got an apparition following you, a ghost." They gasped in unison.
"You can see him?" Dan asked, incredulously.
One of them stepped forward and introduced himself as Michael Scot. "You mean you can see him, too?" He asked.
"Sure, that's Bill." Dan said nonchalantly.
Another Italian-looking man stepped forward, saying his name was Guido, and asked. "Does he talk to you?"
Bill, looking a little hurt, spoke up for himself. "Of course I can talk. I can also take a swing at you."
"Sure, he just talked to you, too. Can't you hear him?" Dan added.
The three women all said at once. "No, we can't hear anything." Then one of them added. "I did see his lips move, though. At least I think that's what I saw."
Then Michael Scot chimed in again. "You need to get as far away from him as you can. I see nothing but trouble."
But a strange looking man who up until now had been silent stepped forward and spoke in what appeared to Dan and Bill to be an affectation. "I am Asdente. I believe this ghost to be benevolent. I believe he's here to help you. But be warned, do not let him overstay his welcome and do not anger him in any way."
Bill and Dan peeled over with laughter, though Dan was secretly glad Bill was laughing as hard as he was.
Bill, still struggling to stop laughing managed to get out one sentence. "See, don't piss me off, buddy." He then immediately began laughing again, holding his gut.
"Thanks. I'll be careful." Dan promised, though he was still laughing when he said it and was pretty sure they thought he was making fun of them which, of course, he was.
"Your future is uncertain." Asdente continued. "Do not take this warning lightly."
"I won't." Dan said, regaining his composure. Thanks for the advice. But I ... er, we've got to get going. We're runing late." They hurried past the strange porch and it's stranger occupants. As they turned onto Spruce they passed two tall men who looked awfully familiar to Dan.
Bill chimed in as they passed. "Hey, isn't that the two drag queens we saw before?"
"You know, I think it is." Dan confirmed. "They certainly clean up nicely. They make much better men than women."
"Maybe they're going to have their future read." Bill speculated and both he and Dan began to laugh again, uncontrollably.