The more ignorant the authority, the more dogmatic it is. In the fields where no real knowledge is even possible, the authorities are the fiercest and most assured and punish non-belief with the severest of penalties.
- Abraham Myerson,
"Well that's twice today now that something very, very strange has happened. And both times you were involved, Bill." Dan said, in a not exactly accusatory tone.
"Are you saying this was my fault?" Bill countered, pushing out his lower lip in a mocking fashion.
"I didn't say that." Bill replied defensively. "It's just an observation, that's all. It's like we've over-stayed our welcome and whatever cracks there were in my own personal hell are now enlarging and letting in the real demons. Is there anything you know about all this you're not telling me?"
"No, man. Absolutely not. I know about as much as you do. Trixie was dreaming about you and wanted to make sure you were okay. Somehow, I honestly don't even know how, I was tapped to lead you through this place. Nobody gave me any instructions. Hell, nobody even really talked to me. I just knew what I was doing as if I learned it through osmosis. One minute I was alone with my thoughts, the next I was on the plane staring at you looking like you'd seen a ghost. Heh heh heh." Bill laughed. "Which, I guess, in retrospect you had so I shouldn't have been so hard on you. Sorry about that, man. But you should have seen you face. It was priceless."
Dan ignored Bill. He flipped on the radio and tried to find something decent on but only found crap; oldies, bad pop or faux country. "I should have brought my iPod." He thought, then said out loud. "Man, there is nothing good on. What the hell happened to music."
"Tell me about it." Bill agreed. "I haven't heard anything made after I left that's worth a damn. I thought corporate rock couldn't get much worse, but I was wrong. What the hell happened?"
Bill backed the car out of the parking lot, and headed back to Shillington. He wanted to get one last look at the house he grew up in since it was unlikely he'd be back here again. He certainly couldn't conceive of any reason to come back after tomorrow. Returning from his thoughts to Bill's tangent of a question, Bill looked over at him with quizically.
"Consolidation mostly, plus the internet which wasn't quite here yet when you snuffed it. There are fewer media companies now than even ten years ago and that means less and less choice or even anything approaching artistic integrity. And then there's Clear Channel. That's a horror story in itself. They now own I think most of the radio stations in America plus billboards, concert series, ticket sales, you name it. If it has to do with music or advertising, they own it. And they play and promote what sells, what makes them money. Period. Nothing that’s not a sure thing ever gets a break anymore. There are no more surprise hits. They've rigged the system so that can't happen. It's like all businesses today. They've evolved such sophisticated models of ways to maximize their profits that literally nothing else matters. So music now sounds like everything else, homogenized, safe and boring as shit."
"If you're a musician today and you want to be famous, you've got to sell out from the word 'go.' Luckily, we're rearing a generation of people who don't know the difference between commerce and art so they don't seem to have any ethical concerns whatsoever. At least it seems that way. Most up and coming so-called rock stars nowadays start shilling before they're even a household name. It's so sad. And talent is certainly no stumbling block. Britney Spears is a good example. She can't sing, can't dance, can't read or write music. But she's attractive in a teen girl-next-door/slut way and then next thing you know, she's an international superstar. Within minutes of that happening, she was doing Pepsi commercials. So she goes from no talent mouseketeer to no talent celebrity. All her music sucks so completely that it makes Debbie Gibson seem like the next Bob Dylan. Style over substance has effectively won the day and you're a talented musician who has the unfortunate circumstance to be born to less than beautiful parents, you're pretty much out of luck. Image is of such primary importance anymore you wonder if the record execs even listen to the music. Like much of the rest of life, it's just a beauty contest."
"And with the school budget cuts, many schools no longer teach the humanities so kids today have almost no real appreciation for the different forms that music can take. So they listen to whatever is on, whatever they're told is good. And it's not just kids. Look how many people think Michael Bolton and Kenny G are talented. Those are adults whose musical sophistication can best be described as deficient, if not totally absent. But if those people never take piano lessions, learn to play a band instrument or even take a dance class they may never be exposed to what music can be in a positive way. So most people seem completely ignorant of music and into that vacuum, the record companies pour whatever crap they want. Then they buy radio airplay and critics who write glowingly about their bands that suck and people, not knowing any better, think they're listening to cutting edge music. It's all so insidious. The whole critic thing in general is such a farce. Do we really need this legion of hacks to tell us what's any good?"
"People can judge for themselves." Bill interrupted. "They usually don't believe it because of the "expert syndrome" where they think that only so-called experts have the ability to decide what's good and what's bad. But that's simply not true. So they defer their choices to them, which serves business interests perfectly."
"So most underground music has moved to the web, the internet. But that option wasn't really around in 1991." Dan explained. But there are literally thousands of bands promoting themselves on the internet, selling their own CDs and other merchandise and reaching their fanbase directly, without any need whatsoever from record companies. Some are even making a living doing it that way. In fact, your buddy Kevin Booth is selling Marblehead Johnson on the internet along with his own music."
"Really?" Bill lit up. "Cool."
They were just coming down the hill at the curve where the road they were on meets up with Lancaster Avenue, Route 222. To the left was the diner they ate breakfast at this morning. Dan, changing the subject, pointed to the spot where the diner was. "When I was a kid, there was a restaurant there called Tiny Tim's. It wasn't a chain or anything. It was just a small silver aluminum-looking box, like one of those old style diners but more boxy. It was small inside with just a counter and room to stand and order. It was strictly 'to go' only. There weren't any chairs or tables to eat there. My grandmother used to take me there once a week after my music lessons. They had the best fries around. I don't remember what made them so great now but at the time I didn't know any better fries anywhere. They were thick and fresh and very flavorful. I just love fries. There's this great line in an otherwise forgettable movie, Men at Work with Charlie Sheen and his brother, Emilio Estevez. How does that go? Oh, yeah."
There are several sacred things in this world that you don't EVER mess with. One of them happens to be another man's fries. Now, you just remember that and you'll live a long and healthy life."Now that's a food philosophy I agree with. I just love pommes frites. Almost as much as potato chips."
"So explain to me again why you're alive and I'm dead?" Bill chided Dan.
"I'm a non-smoker." Dan quickly replied, with a smirk.
"God dammit." Bill swore. "You sanctimonious, self-righteous ..."
Dan's uncontrolled outburst of laughter stopped Bill in mid-epithet. "You're kidding, right?"
"Gotcha!" Dan laughed. "I don't actually smoke, though. I tried it once when I was a kid but I never got hooked. I think I smoked for maybe a week or two in junior high just to be cool. But I didn't feel cool. Not at all. It just wasn't me. But on the other hand, I've never cared much if other people smoke. Not in my face, of course, but then I don't want people in face doing lots of things."
"So you don't mind if I smoke?" Bill asked, pulling out a cigarette from the pack in his breast pocket.
"Have I said anything about it once all week?"
"No. But you could have just being polite." Bill suggested.
Dan laughed again. "You don't really believe that, do you?
"No, I guess not." Bill said sarcastically and he punched Dan lightly in the arm.
"Hey!" Dan cried out in mock injury, rubbing his arm for effect. He turned left onto Museum Road and a short time later was turning right on State Street. He was feeling oddly comfortable with Bill. There was something strange in that, of course, but the dead comedian had become his traveling companion on this confounding odyssey into his past. He knew he should continue to be scared or something like that, but he felt more at ease with Bill than virtually anyone else he'd been with since he'd been back in Dutch Wonderland. He guessed that said a lot about him and less about Bill, but there it was. What could he do?
Dan slowed the car as the crested the hill at Pennsylvania Avenue and pulled over mid-block just opposite his old house. It was the same spot his friend Laura parked his car with him passed out in the back seat. He'd drank a fifth of Jack Daniels at a party in West Hills in about an hour after one of his more outrageous break-ups with Donna. Not only was he in no condition to drive that night, but he was in no condition to walk or talk, either. So Laura drove his car home, followed by another friend driving her car and left him there to sleep it off. Laura was originally a friend of Donna's, but as the years after high school progressed, Dan and Laura remained friends and in fact grew quite close despite being on opposite coasts. They spoke on the phone occasionally, exchanged cards and e-mails, and she was one of the few people to have visited him in California, when she came out for a week several years before. Neither of them had the faintest idea what became of Donna, but they had both escaped Shillington and had not looked back. When Dan woke up that morning in his back seat, the sun had already come up and was blinding him and his quite massive hangover. He'd struggled to open the door and stagger in the house to sleep it off.
The view now was not radically different, but for the absence of all those trees whose ghostly images still haunted the landscape. The seven steps where he'd made up games of stepball with the neighborhood kids, the small steep grassy hill that ran next to the steps and was a bitch to mow, and the top level with its small patch of rectangular grass and cement walkway that led to the house proper. Four more cement steps led up to the wooden porch that was still covered in an unnatural green of Astroturf. The awnings were down for the winter and the metal pipe bones of its frame jutted out into a grey sky. There was very little color anywhere. Halloween decorations had been taken down and Christmas was still almost two months away. It would be a few weeks before the street would be awash in tiny colored holiday lights. The houses here were a dull brick with grey and white trim. Most porches were bare, their chairs, tables and hammocks put away until spring. The sccreen doors had been replaced with storm doors to keep out the cold and maintain the furnace-like temperatures inside. Except for small details, they were all interchangeable.
He remembered the first time he'd seen this house like it was yesterday. It's where all his memories begin. Prior to that, he only remembered faint images and vague events. But at five, when his mother remarried Rick, Dan's stepfather, she'd bought this home with high hopes for their future. It was as if his life began with that house since he remembered so little of his life before that time. His first glimpse inside was before they painted and all the walls were dark shades of grey, black and maroon. Looking back, they seemed strange uninviting colors for the inside of a house. Repainting was job one and it was done in about a week by Dan's mom, his stepfather and Grambecca, which is what he called his Mom's mother. Her real name was Rebecca and so he'd only been able to pronounce Grandmother Rebecca as Grambecca. Rick and she began arguing almost at once and for all Rick's faults, Grambecca was a very difficult woman, to say the least. She was an uneducated, manipulative person who kept her daughter under her thumb most of her life, including her adult life. After Dan's father's death, they had lived with Grambecca for a few years, which gave her powers over her daughter that Dan recognized as unhealthy even at an early age. Dan's mother tried desperately to get out from under her mother's manipulations but in the end she was never able to.
Once they moved into the State Street house, life became very different for Dan and everything there was new. He had a new neighborhood to play in, he had new friends (once they accepted him), and a new school. He spent the summer exploring his new world and getting to know his neighbors. That fall he started school for the first time. At that point, Rick had not yet started drinking; at least not to the degree that he became violent, abusive, and ultimately psychotic. So those early years were comparatively idyllic for Dan, especially when viewed backwards by his future self in the turbulent years that followed.
Every one of the nine rooms of the two-story house held deep memories for Dan. Some were good, most bad. He could navigate them blind, even today. The first room you entered was the small living room. It was bordered by a dining room, which had no door between the rooms and so gave the area a larger feel to it. At the back of the house was a modest kitchen from which you could also reach the basement or the back yard.
The focal point of the living room, then like as now, was the television. When they first moved in they had a large console black & white set. Opposite it sat the sofa and a coffee table. Just to the right of the television was an upholstered chair that was at an angle that faced away from the TV. This chair was Dan's punishment. In the days before "time out" entered the parenting lexicon, whenever he misbehaved his mother would put him in that chair for varying lengths of time, depending upon the severity of his transgression. The TV would undoubtedly be on – for it was almost always on – but from that chair Dan could not see the TV screen, he could only hear it. For Dan, this was a horrific torture of the highest order. To him, the Spanish Inquisition was a walk in the park compared to this. Each moment was agony. He tried to imagine what was depicted on screen, but not being able to actually see it, and especially his favorite shows, was excruciating.
Normally, Dan watched television from a rocking chair that was in the middle of the room, but off to one side near the front door. It was kid size and fit him perfectly. It was an old wooden rocker that had been in the family for generations. Outside of his bedroom, it was Dan's only piece of furniture that was truly his, since nobody else could fit in it. Several years after they moved in, Rick had smashed it to smithereens in a drunken rage as yet another piece of his heritage was stolen by his stepfather.
The opening in between the living room and dining room had built in bookshelves about four feet high and were flat on top to allow for displaying knick knacks, which is mother adored. This was where her precious china dolls normally were kept, along with a small bookcase just inside the front door. The number of times those dolls were destroyed is incalculable but they were always replaced if not with the exact doll then a suitable replacement. Sometimes his stepfather replaced them out of guilt. And more perplexingly, sometimes his mother replaced them so Rick wouldn't remember having smashed them the night before. This last bit of twisted logic was always a mystery to Dan. It meant Rick had no responsibility of consequences for his actions. Since as a child he was being taught just the opposite, this represented for Dan a conundrum that he never quite understood as a child.
It wasn't until he had escaped his environment that he started to understand his mother's logic. Rick's tirades generally took place during period of blackouts. As a result, he never remembered – or at least claimed to never remember – his drunken periods. Sometimes entire days were lost down the memory hole. Because of this and Rick's particular brand of alcoholism and psychosis, seeing the destruction that he'd wrought the previous evening elicited two possible responses. In one, he'd feel very guilty and try his best to make amends. When this happened, several relatively calm weeks might follow, as if they were riding in the eye of the storm, before another episode would reveal the storm that had been around all along. Also during these periods, Rick would replace or fix what he'd broken. He'd even attempt to treat his mother contritely, taking her out, giving her money or just staying home and sober.
But the other possible reaction was that it would serve to infuriate him even more, for reasons that defy any common sense. On those occasions, the frequency and fury of Rick's pent up rage would just come uncorked and destruction, both physical and emotional, would rain down on Dan and his mother for days on end. Rick was as smart as he was mad, for he was always careful that any marks on Dan or his mother's skin was not visible, confining his blows to areas of the body normally covered by clothing. But the house was another matter. Furniture was routinely smashed to bits, china and glass broken, books ripped to shreds, phones ripped from walls, clothes torn and food flung about, among much else. That Rick kept guns in the house was a constant source of trepidation.
In one of the more tragically funny incidents, Rick cleared a TV tray of food, which sent plates, silverware, and food flying. On one of the shelves in between the two rooms, his mother had a large dollhouse, with rooms filled with miniature furniture and household accessories. It was months later that Dan discovered a piece of meat from that night had wound up resting in one of the tiny beds in the dollhouse. His mother and he shared a rare laugh when he showed her the sleeping rib steak.
The kitchen, the scene of the infamous burned carpet, also had its share of moments. It's where Dan received his education from Rick about women as he entered puberty. Late, and drunk, one evening he sat Dan down at the table to talk to him about girls, telling him this sage advice. "All women are pigs." Then, after a pregnant pause where god only knows what was going through Rick's mind, added quickly. "Except your mother."
The steps that led to the second floor, which Dan tended to loudly bound up two at a time, much to the consternation of his neighbors, the Douglases, had a full-length mirror at the landing at the the top of the stairs. It was there that Dan hit his mother for the first, and only, time. He was in high school at the time and, as was not uncommon at that time, was having a heated argument with his mom. They were standing at the top of the stairs and Dan's mom had her back to the mirror and Dan noticed, for the first time, that he was no taller than his mother. Looking into the mirror, he could see his head over hers and this realization gave him undue confidence. He boldly said something that he could no longer remember but which, at the time, must have really pissed her off because she slapped him across the mouth. In that moment, brimming with the new found knowledge that he was bigger than her, he instinctively slapper her right back. To say this surprised his mother would be an understatement. He remembered the look on her face today sitting in the rental car across the street as well as if it were on that fateful day. Her face took on a look of astonished surprise mixed with an anger he had never before seen in her. Her face literally turned beet red. It didn't take longer than a few seconds to decide on his next course of action. He fled down the stairs and walked the several blocks to his Aunt Helen's house and slept the night there, apologizing to his mother the following day after she'd had a chance to cool down.
But after that day, regardless of his apology, things were different with his mother. Although they continued to fight bitterly until the day she was murdered, she thereafter treated him with a small element of fear. It was as if she worried that he might be picking up the habits of his only male role model, his stepfather. In fact, Dan worried about this, too. He worked very hard to cultivate interests that were distinctly different from Rick, things that he could not intrude upon. He read voraciously, wrote for the school paper, played tennis and golf, played a musical instrument and became active in band and theatre. These were all pursuits that Rick was wholly ignorant of, and he could only mock Dan and try to undermine his confidence and self-esteem. And while Rick was quite gifted at this pursuit, he could not fully take away Dan's growing independence.
When Dan was young, it was easier to get along with Rick. He was less of a threat. He may have been a constant reminder of MaryJo's first husband, who Rick always felt jealous toward, but he was a child. He was small and powerless. As Dan grew, Rick's paranoia kept pace and he seemed increasingly threatened by Dan. He took great pains to keep him down and in a constant state of fear. Perhaps he had seen Hamlet and feared the prince's vengeance.
When sober, Rick acted like a child and when Dan actually was a child they could get along quite well. They could interact like two kids playing though perhaps only Rick knew the difference. As Dan matured and Rick did not, and in fact regressed as the alcoholism overtook him, their relationship progressively disintegrated so that by the time Dan left home his life had been threatened several times and he honestly feared for both his own and his mother's safety. It was a difficult decision to leave his mother alone with Rick when he finished high school but their relationship had soured so much and he was unable to persuade her to leave him that he felt he had no choice but to save himself. So it was a bittersweet day when he no longer lived under Rick's roof. He felt liberated and free, but nagging at him was the thought that he had betrayed his mother and sacrificed her to his hard won freedom.
When Rick did finally murder her several years later, he felt at least a twinge of guilt that he had not tried to do more to get his mother out of her predicament. Tears welled up in Dan now, as he sat in Minotaur staring up at his old house. The flood of memories that just being here produced was overwhelming. He felt was powerless to move. He was thankful Bill was quite, for once. Dan shut his eyes tight and let the emotions wash over him, letting himself cry uncontrollably.