This mournful Truth is ev'ry where confest,
SLOW RISES WORTH, BY POVERTY DEPREST:
But here more slow, where all are Slaves to Gold,
Where Looks are Merchandise, and Smiles are sold,
Where won by Bribes, by Flatteries implor'd,
The Groom retails the Favours of his Lord.
- Samuel Johnson, London (1738)
It still wasn't raining when Dan and Bill made it back to Chulkie's house. Even though it was still fairly grey outside, the sun was fighting to let its presence be known and streaks of light shot out of the clouds like laser beams from time to time, bathing small sections of the world in brilliant golden light, all the more remarkable for the muted colors that surrounded it.
Dan was shaking his head in disbelief as he climbed the back stairs and opened the door to the kitchen. "I still can't believe those fortune tellers or whatever they were could see you."
"It was pretty weird." Bill admitted. "But they couldn't hear me, which was even weirder. I can't believe they were somehow in touch with the spirit world or some shit like that but I don't how else to explain it, either. Unless they were on mushrooms."
"I don't know about you, but I tend to think of astrology as bullshit." Dan began. "So it's hard to take seriously people who claim to be able to tell my fortune based on how the stars were aligned when I was born. It's easier to accept the personality traits since they seem, at least to me, to be based more on years of collected data then the position of the stars. But the forecasts are so vague as to be generally meaningless. There's this evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, who hates the fact that society in general and in particular the scientific community sees astrology as harmless and openly tolerates it. He, on the other hand, thinks that it undermines rationality, which makes it easier for people to believe all kinds of other crap and therefore he thinks there should be campaigns against it. I never really thought much about it until I read his speech, but it kind of makes sense to me. By not calling all that new age crap what it really is, the silence of the scientific community lends a certain legitimacy to it. There are whole industries to part people from their money from pyramid power to crystals to astrology. And not one of them has ever been shown to have a shred of evidence to prove their claims. I suppose the irrationality of religious belief also makes the acceptance of all manner of other fairy tales possible, too. So it's not just the scientists on the hook for this one."
"Yeah, it is bizarre what people will believe." Bill agreed. "Stuff that makes no rational sense plenty of people easily accept but the more rational, the more convincing people need if indeed they ever are willing to believe it. Take evolution and my rant on dinosaur fossils not being mentioned in the bible. The lengths that people will go to protect their cherished beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence that contradicts it is remarkable, but I think that says a lot about the people themselves. Hell, there are people who still believe the Earth is flat and we're the center of the solar system. What the fuck is the matter with those people. Can it really be it's more comforting to be ignorant? I just don't get it. By the way, what's next on the agenda. Didn't you say you had a lot to do today."
"Geez, aren't we a nag?" Dan laughed. "You'll love this next place. Boscov's. It's a local department store. I've got to pick up a suit for the funeral and I should be able to find something not too horrible there."
"Cool. We walking or driving?" Bill asked.
"It's too far to walk." Dan told him. "I'll get the car."
The drive to Boscov's West took them into Sinking Springs, a suburb next to Shillington. At one time, there were only a few Boscov's in and around Reading so they were each referred to by a compass point. But there were now something like forty of them in five states, so that no longer worked. Dan had not been to the newer stores but the ones he was familiar with, like the Boscov's West, looked the same to him now as they did over twenty years ago. In that time it appeared precious little money had been spent on their upkeep or on modernization, which was to his mind both good and bad. It was good in the sense that a small piece of the past had been preserved but bad because the type of store Boscov's had been could no longer compete. When Dan was a child, Boscov's seemed to carry everything and it all looked shiny and new. Today is seemed to present a completely different message. It looked past its prime, like an old thrift store with old wooden fixtures and poor selection. Because of this, the goods they carried looked shoddy and cheap. This was largely Dan's perception, he noted, because the actual stuff they carried was new and the brand names were familiar. It was just that the overall presentation gave that perception. Inside the store it was hot, very hot. Like most cold weather places Dan had lived, they tended to overcompensate in indoor winter heating. But Boscov's had gone a step farther. Inside the store it was downright tropical. The layout and where things were located, oddly, seemed the same to Dan. He was more used to stores changing their layout every few years, at least, in order to maximize space and, Dan Suspected, force customers to get lost shake them out of their shopping routines and look at more items in the store. But the men's clothing section was still on the left-hand side just inside the store. He found the suits easily though they had very few in his size. Luckily he was able to find a simple blue suit that met his needs. He chose a couple of button-down white shirts and two modest ties. Next stop, shoes.
As Dan made his way to where he remembered the shoes department was, he passed the many jewelry counters that were centered in the middle area toward the front of the store behind the entrance and the customer service desk. Behind one of them, was a woman who looked near Dan's age with dark raven hair who looked remarkably like a girl he'd had a crush on in high school. Of course, everybody he knew had a crush on her, so that wasn't too surprising. Jodi Herzog was a tease. She was beautiful, and she knew it. She was also the daughter of high school social studies teacher, Mr. Herzog, who Dan had as a senior. If anybody actually went out with Jodi, Dan never heard about it. She could usually be found hanging out with the little sister of Dan's old friend Max, herself a knockout. Tammy Hess was the feather-haired blonde counterpoint to Jodi's jet black hair. They were thick as thieves and every boy wanted them. This they exploited to the fullest. They could pretty much count on any male they knew to do favors for them; give them rides, buy them food and drinks, or whatever all in the hopes that the pair might deign to pay them some attention.
Dan and a friend of his had memorably given them a ride one time in Dan's van. In high school, Dan had a Ford van with windows in it. His Mom had made red, white & blue curtains for it so that he might have some privacy. It wasn't exactly the tricked out love van with a carpeted bed in back that were all the rage in male fantasy vehicles during the Seventies, but it did have a folding metal cot and a cooler so he was able to make do. One day Dan and his friend, John Snyder, were crusing around and drove by the swimming pool just as Jodi and Tammy were coming out, still wearing string bikinis. They flagged down Dan and asked for a ride, which Dan and John were only to glad to give them. The two of them sat on the cot in the back and the four of them chatted. Dan offered them a can of beer, which he had on ice in a cooler in the back. They accepted and he drove to a spot to park so they could all have a beer. Since they weren't too far from the road to Cedar Top and many rural and remote forest sites, Dan headed up past the cemetary. He found a secluded spot on one of the wooded back roads and parked the van. He left the radio on but cut the engine and he joined John and the girls in the back, helping himself to a can of Genny Cream Ale. While nothing much happened that day, he still remembered it quite fondly as the closest he'd ever get to seeing Jodi naked. In her string bikini, very little was left to the imagination and when she bent over you could catch a glimpse of her nipples and full breasts as the loose bikini top momentarily revealed the prize it held.
It was these thoughts that made him skirt the jewelry counter and not find out if indeed it was Jodi. It was unlikely she would remember him after so much time and the idea of her life being reduced to working retail at Boscov's seemed a little sad and pathetic. Dan saw her doing so much more with her life, though in truth he had few retained memories about her character, intelligence or personality so perhaps this was where she was meant to end up. He did remember her as scheming and little bit of an airhead, which is what a scatterbrained woman was called in his day. So maybe karma had reduced her to these circumstances.
At any rate, the shoe department was exactly where it used to be and Dan found a pair of unassuming black loafers in short order. They were even on sale, as part of a red tag sale, which he guessed was a way to have a sale when they couldn't think up a better gimmick. Everything in the store was decorated red and there were displays of red devils undoubtedly left over from Halloween throughout the store. In fact, now that Dan noticed them, they seemed to be everywhere. Devils were all over the place and all the employees were wearing red so the whole store had a devilish look to it. From behind a display rack, Dan and Bill heard a loud barking spider, a nwonk, a trouser trumpet followed by adolescent giggling. At the sound of the cheese being cut, red devils seemed to be all over the place. Dan wasn't sure if they were real or if the store was putting on some kind of show.
Bill told Dan to stay put and hidden behind a rack and stepped up to a man dressed like a dog of some kind, and said to him. "Listen, man. Don't be an evil prick."
To which all the demons cried out. "Let Old Harry go!"
The Dark Poet then told the demons. "I'm allowed to be here. I'm escorting him through here. I have permission from the highest authority."
At that, a large, handsome man in a black wool suit and red tie, but holding a pitchfork, stepped forward. "I'm Old Harry." He said to Bill. "You can pass. They won't hurt you." Bill waved Dan over and they got out of there with Dan's purchases as quickly as they could.
"What the fuck was that?" Dan asked, as soon as they got outside. "Was that real? Am I really in hell? Was that really the devil?"
"I don't know." Bill admitted. "But they could all see and hear me but nobody else in the store seemed to notice them. Did you see that? I was just winging it. I don't even know who Old Harry is. Do you?"
"Yeah, I do." Dan said, starting to breath hard. "That's one of the names that the Pennsylvannia Dutch call the devil. I don't even believe in all that shit, so to say I'm a little scared here is an understatement. This just keeps getting weirder and weirder, and less comprehensible."
"Don't worry, man. Chill out. I've got everything under control. You leave in two days. We'll be fine until then. Promise." Bill reassured.
They jumped the small muddy ditch that appeared to ring the parking lot and got in the Minotaur.
"Did you notice that ditch when we came in?" Dan asked, as he started up the car.