The greater the number of laws and enactments, the more thieves and robbers there will be.
- Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching (c. 604-531 B.C.E.)
Dan turned the Minotaur onto Mifflin Boulevard and gunned the car past the eastern edge of the field, turning left onto High Street. This part of Shillington used to be in Cumru Township but was eventually absorbed into the borough. Most of the homes in this area, which was known as Mifflin Park, were built in the mid-1950s and 1960s during the infamous baby boom.
And though Dan was technically a boomer, having been born in 1960, near the end of what is generally considered the boom years: 1946-64. Dan never seemed to share the concerns of boomers and he had few, if any, of the defining experiences. In fact, birth rates actually began declining around 1957. This is why Neil Howe and William Strauss, in their groundbreaking book about generational patterns, Generations, remarked that persons born after that time had different cultural and political ideals than the baby boomers.
Dan hated baby boomers. They were the biggest bunch of whiners he’d ever encountered, being responsible for the biggest social swindle of the century. In Dan’s opinion, baby boomers embraced the rebellious age of the 1960s with wild idealism that promised social reform and a broad opening of many new boundaries with civil rights, feminism, sexual morality, religious freedom and tolerance including room for secularism, gay rights and may others. But two things happened then, which forever robbed Dan’s generation of their moment in the sun.
First, baby boomers refused to grow up. Now this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. And to Dan, he wasn’t sure anyone really should grow up. But the baby boomers’ numbers meant that society and the media continued to watch what they did and most trends identified during the Seventies were driven by this so-called called “Me” generation, a nickname that fine them perfectly; selfish and self-centered. And to Dan, that should have been his generations’ time to define itself, to make its own mark and to carry on the legacy of the 1960s. But the boomers wouldn’t get out of the way and continued to hog the spotlight. Aging hippies and counterculture continued to be the driving force of the Seventies. Dan’s generation sat in the sidelines and watched, with a mixture of cynical anger and bemusement.
Second, and by far the most egregious, when many boomers did finally get on with their lives, they became the 1980s yuppies and corporate money whores that defined that decade. So many of these supposed idealist ex-hippies renounced their legacy in favor of the god money that it was if the Sixties never happened. But Dan and his generation had been raised at an impressionable age with that idealism and hope. And for Dan, at least, he was unable to shake off those high-minded ideals, as they were deeply a part of his very being. Perhaps that what so offended him about so many boomers’ defection? It was as if they weren’t really serious about what they stood for then because they seemed so easily to cast off their idealism and become far worse than the grey-suited establishment they so reviled in their youth. Their decadence and lavish spending and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses affluence had been taken to new heights of greed.
To be sure there were still plenty of idealists from the Sixties who were still active in social and political movements and for whom their radical values never left them. But they were a tiny minority. The vast majority buried their idealism deep enough that they appeared untroubled by their hypocritical transformation. The only time they even seemed to think about it was to wax nostalgic about Woodstock, Altamont, the march on Washington or the summer of love even if they never even took part in any of them. They might still listen to Bob Dylan or Joan Baez but no longer pondered the meaning of the lyrics. Their sprawling suburban homes were likely replete with expensive purchased memories from that bygone era, like limited edition prints by Andy Warhol or framed album covers by Jefferson Airplane. People would admire them at the lavish cocktail parties they threw. Yet nobody seemed to notice the stench of deceit that tainted the mockery of authenticity their lives had become.
Mifflin Park was a mixture of boomers and older homeowners. Dan’s music teacher had lived here and he used to ride his bike there from fourth grade on. One of Dan’s best friends growing up, Adam Abrams, lived just around the corner from his old piano teacher. It had been twenty years since he’d seen Adam. In fact, the last time was when he was a pallbearer at Dan’s mother’s funeral. But he was one of the few people he’d kept some semblance of contact with. At first they would simply phone one another from time to time, maybe a couple of times a year. The advent of the Internet had made it easier to stay in touch via e-mail, so now their correspondence was closer to monthly or at least bi-monthly.
Adam had also gone into the Army, like Dan, but he had been stationed in a different place so their experiences in the military were somewhat different. After that, Adam also came back to Shillington but in his case it was to stay. His parents moved to Florida but he stayed put, got a job with the post office and got married. Adam had no kids, only a dog. But he did have a house in Mifflin Park and though Dan knew pretty much right where it was, he could not picture it in his mind. Even though Dan must have ridden or drove past the house hundreds if not thousands of times he did not specifically remember it. It was like the phenomenon of driving a particular route over and over again and then suddenly noticing something, as if for the first time, that you couldn’t conceivably have missed before. From that point you always noticed it and you marveled at how you hadn’t noticed it before. The same thing occurred whenever you bought a new or different car. It was if suddenly and magically everywhere you looked you now saw the same make and model of your car. They were always there before, of course, it’s simply that they didn’t register in your conscious mind.
Dan found the house easily and it looked like most of the Mifflin Park homes in this area. It was in the older part of the development, and looked as it had been built for Leave It to Beaver. It was a handsome, modest two-story brick home that sat centered on a large manicured lawn. It was the kind of house people in California would kill for, and here it commanded something like a little less than half of what it would go for where Dan lived. The median house price in Shillington was something like $90,000; in San Francisco, California it was approaching $500,000 or more than five times as much. Dan had looked at the real estate listings is in the local paper, the Reading Eagle, and was amazed at how cheap houses were in comparison to where he lived. That location mattered to that degree seemed almost criminal.
Where Dan lived, only a small fraction of people could ever afford to own their own home. This was yet another by product of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. A skyrocketing housing market was good for the economy and in fact was now seen as propping it up. But the inflated prices were an illusion, just like the majority of features in our economy. They worked simply, and perhaps only, because enough people believed in them. It was in this sense he believed the worship of money actually had become a religion. Money was no longer backed by gold or anything else. It was worth what it was worth only as long as it was accepted as a form of currency. Our money, like most of the world’s monetary supply is often referred to as “fiat money” which means that it is essentially useless because it can only be used as an exchange medium. That means you can trade it for other goods. You can give a store a dollar and get a loaf of bread in exchange. Your money has value as long as the store is willing to exchange it for bread. If, for example, all the stores decided not to accept dollar bills they would become worthless. Admittedly, it’s hard to visualize that actually happening anytime soon, but it’s still a disconcerting fact that our entire economy is built on a house a cards. Wealth is a magician’s trick.
Dan parked the car in front of Adam’s house and killed the engine. Bill shifted in his seat and turned toward Dan.
“Who is this again?” He wondered.
“Adam. Adam and I have been friends since we were pretty young. We went to the same church and school, of course. We were in band together. He was a grade ahead of me. He also went in the army after high school, just like I did. When I left for California, we lost touch for a little while, but then hooked up again a few years later. Adam got married to woman he worked with named Donna, but I’ve never met her.” Dan replied.
“Where does he work?” Bill asked.
“The post office.” Bill told him, adding. “No going postal jokes. Adam always had a great memory for numbers. He knows zip codes like the back of his hands. It’s hard to stump him; it’s pretty amazing in a cocktail party trick sort of way.”
“Who, me?” Bill gave Dan his innocent, surprised face.
Dan rang the doorbell and waited. A few second later, the door swung open and Adam was standing there. He looked almost the same as Dan remembered. A little greyer, perhaps, but he was still tall and lanky. Adam now had a beard, which made sense, since he always had a lot of facial hair that he was constantly fighting to contain. Wearing a Flyers jersey and jeans, Adam stepped forward and hugged Dan, wrapping his arms around his back. Dan returned it easily and the two locked in a back pounding embrace.
“Dude!” Adam said when they disengaged. “It’s great to see you. I can’t believe you’re here. Come in, come in.” He gestured him inside. “I want you to meet my wife. Donna, this is Dan. Dan, Donna.”
They shook hands. “I’m glad to finally meet you, Donna.” Dan said.
“I feel like I already know you.” She blurted out. “Adam has told me so much about you.”
Dan blushed a little. “Nothing too terrible, I hope? They all laughed. Dan could see Bill making faces, trying to get him to laugh.
“Let me show you around.” Adam said, and led Dan on a tour of his house. Much of it was as he expected: a nice suburban home. It had a lot of Adams passions on display, his love of sports, and especially all the Philadelphia teams, and music. The basement was filled with wall-to-wall shelves of records with Adam’s drum set in one corner. Seeing the drums, Dan remembered that Adam had been a pretty good drummer, but he didn’t realize he was still at it.
“I didn’t know you were still playing.” Dan said, nodding toward the drums.
“Yeah, a little.” Adam admitted. “I never really stopped. I’m even playing in a band, sort of. We get together about once a week and practice. We actually do mostly originals. It’s a lot of fun.”
They marched back upstairs and sat in the living room. Adam and Donna took up what were probably their usual seats in the sofa while Dan sat in a Barcalounger situated nearby. They chatted amiably for the better part of an hour, catching up, trading stories from the past two decades and occasionally falling in to earlier reminisces that probably made Donna feel left out. But she seemed to know most of them, and even asked for Dan’s elaborations of events, presumably since she knew just her husband’s take of the story.
Bill just sat on an opposite chair and made faces, prompting Dan to shoot him looks whenever he thought the Abrams weren’t looking. Eventually, of course, Adam caught him.
“What are you looking at?” He asked.
“Oh, nothing.” Dan stalled. “Just taking it all in. Some of this furniture looks familiar. Wasn’t it in your folk’s house in West Hills?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” Adam responded. “Good memory. This sofa and your chair were both from my parents’ house. So are some other pieces, bookshelves and tables, stuff like that. Did I tell you they moved to Florida?”
“Uh, I think you did.” Dan lied. He was just happy he’d deflected the topic from his making faces at Bill, who had gotten up and gone out the back door.
“I thought I did.” Adam continued. “Anyway, they got a much smaller place down there so they left a lot of their stuff here. We figured it was cheaper than buying new stuff.”
“How are they doing? Your parents, I mean.” Dan asked, remembering Adam’s parents fondly though he knew Adam’s relationship with then had been strained at one point. Dan had a pretty good relationship with most of his friend’s parents. He wasn’t sure if they took pity on him because they knew all about his situation at home or if he just genuinely got along with older people. Either way, he ate dinner at his friends’ houses a lot. It was much easier on him then playing the lottery of going home to find out whether it was one of Rick’s good days or bad days. He’d been especially fond of Mrs. Abrams’ cooking so Dan spent more than a few evenings at their house.
“Pretty good.” Adam answered cautiously. “My mom, anyway. Dad passed away. I think it’s been at least five years now.”
“Oh, man.” Adam jumped in sympathetically. “I didn’t know that. I missed that one, I’m sure. I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s been five years now. He went quietly, in his sleep.” Adam said soothingly.
“How’s your Mom taking it?” Dan asked, concerned.
“She’s got a boyfriend now.” He laughed. He saw the look of shock on Dan’s face and added. “Yeah, I can’t believe it either. It’s pretty funny, in a way. He’s 84 and they’ve been dating for over a year.”
They all laughed at that. Then Dan remembered something he’d almost forgotten. “You remember your Dad’s advice about driving?”
“What was that?” Adam said, clearly not remembering.
“We were going to some concert or something and we had to drive up the Pottsville Pike. What was that, route 61? Anyway, before we left, your Dad sat me down and told me that whatever I did, stay out of the middle lane. Never go in the center lane. It’s the most dangerous place to be. He was very serious about it.” Dan chuckled.
“I do remember that.” Adam said, nodding his head. “Didn’t we drive most of the way in the middle lane?”
“Yeah, I think we did; just to be defiant. And to prove we could, I suppose. But I always remember that when I’m driving on a road with a center lane like that. So in a sense, your Dad is always with me.” Dan said sentimentally.
“Wow. Cool.” Was all Adam could say.
“Are you guys going to be able to make it to the viewing tonight and the funeral tomorrow?” Dan asked, changing the subject.
“I’ll be there for sure.” Adam promised. “Donna’s got to work both nights but tomorrow she can meet me at your grandmother’s house afterwards. The wake should still be going on late into the evening, right?”
“I hope so.” Dan told him. “I bought enough stuff for a small army. But I’m honestly not sure who’s coming. It’s been quite a while since I’ve thrown any kind of party in Shillington. Have you spread the word at all?”
“I told a few people. There aren’t a lot of people who still live around here from our era. And fewer still that I see very regularly. I don’t even go to Grace Lutheran anymore.”
“Really?” Dan was surprised.
“Yeah, there’s another Lutheran church that’s closer, in Grill. Christ Lutheran Church. It has the added advantage of not having Reverend Dreher as a pastor.” Adam offered.
“Is that who replaced Sunderland?” Dan inquired.
“Yeah, after the scandal with Johnny Perchmann.” Adam started. “They pretty much had to clean house after that.”
“Why. What happened to Old Fish Head?” This had been their nickname for Perchmann, the director of education for the church.
“They caught him with another man.” Adam replied matter-of-factly.
Dan started to laugh uncontrollably. If he’d had a drink, he would have spit it out in that ridiculous sitcom way. “What, they didn’t know he was gay?” Dan said through clenched teeth, trying to suppress his laughter.
“Apparently not.” Adam laughed, clearly loosening up.
“That’s like not realizing Liberace wasn’t just a nice man who loved his mother and dressed real nice. How could anyone have not known he was gay, for chrissakes. We knew it when were ten, and we weren’t even sure then we knew what it meant. But it couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d worn a sign around a neck. How could our parents be so universally clueless?” Dan’s voice went up as he, too, was feeling more comfortable with his old friend.
“I think they all pretended not to realize it after it came out because otherwise it might have meant they thought it was okay.” Adam theorized. “But they had to know, it was just too obvious.”
“I think you’re right.” Dan agreed. “They just couldn’t bring themselves to accept that a homosexual was living among them and was teaching their children about the bible. It was too much for their suburban sensibilities. That sort of thing happened in San Francisco, not Shillington. So they went into a kind of social shock that allowed them to keep their hallowed notions of right and wrong intact and not have to confront uncomfortable truths. It happens all the time. Look at people who couldn’t accept that O.J. killed his wife, Kobe raped that girl, or Michael Jackson was a pedophile. Despite the fact that all the evidence pointed at those conclusions, people were simply unable to believe it. I don’t mean they couldn’t conclude from the evidence what happened. I mean they refused to even look at the evidence so they wouldn’t have to make a judgment. They just buried their heads in the sand like an ostrich. I loved hearing fans on the street talking about the accused celebrity as if they knew him, saying shit like ‘so-and-so would never do that. He’s just a too good a person or too talented’. What an absolute crock of shit. It wasn’t just that those people couldn’t believe what was obvious to everybody else; it was that they simply refused to even look at objectively. They were fans therefore he was innocent. What a great way to look at the world. Whatever I like is good and whatever I don’t is evil. What an excellent moral compass.”
“By the way.” Adam interrupted, exchanging a nervous glance with his wife. “I wanted to ask you, are you planning on seeing Trixie?”
“I don’t think so.” Dan said flatly. “I haven’t spoken to her since shortly after I left for the west coast. I don’t have any idea where she is or even how to get in touch her. Hell, I don’t even know if she’s still around her. Do you?”
“No idea.” Adam told him. “I haven’t seen her for a number of years, at least ten. Probably more. And the last time I saw her, it was across the mall and I didn’t even talk to her. So I don’t know if she still lives here or not, either, to tell you the truth.”
Bill had come back in the room and was grinning. He was also pointing at Adam’s wife Donna. Dan hadn’t noticed before she looked a little uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had taken. Then a strange sound, low and almost human, could be heard from the basement.
“What was that?” She jumped.
Bill stretched his hands out, palms up, and shrugged his shoulders to indicate to Dan that he had no idea, either.
“It was probably just the dog, honey.” Adam reassured her.
Dan stood up, seizing the opportunity to make his exit. “I should probably be going. I still have to stop by my aunt and uncle’s place over by the middle school.”
“You mean on Governor Drive?” Adam asked.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Why?” Dan replied.
“That’s not the middle school anymore. Now it’s the Intermediate School, which means grades four to six.” Adam corrected him.
“Where’d they move the middle school?” Dan wondered, and then added. “Wait, you mean elementary school isn’t first to sixth anymore?”
“No, it’s not. It’s first to third, then intermediate is fourth through sixth. The middle school is now where the junior high school was and it’s grades seven and eight. The high school is now all four grades, ninth through twelfth.” Adam continued.
“Wow. How bizarre.” Dan said. “Talk about shaking things up. Well anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow. Any chance of coming early to help me with things? There’s probably not that much to do but I’d love to have a little more time to spend with you. We haven’t seen each other in a long time. Assuming Donna doesn’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind at all.” She interjected. “I’ll be at work. Adam can come over whenever you want.”
“Yeah, totally.” Adam agreed. “The funeral’s at noon, right.”
Dan nodded his head.
“I can be there around eleven.” Adam suggested.
“Perfect.” Dan told him, and he headed out the door. “It was nice to meet you.” He said to Donna. “See you tonight, Adam.”
Bill joined Dan again outside, looking a little sheepish. But Dan just took it in stride. He was getting used to having a ghost around, even as sarcastic a ghost as Bill. “What was that noise in the basement? You know as well as I do that the dog was out back in the yard, so it wasn’t her.”
“It definitely wasn’t the dog.” Bill agreed. “I went downstairs to check it out. But I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.”
“No more unexplained demons?” Dan quizzed him.
“Well, not that I could see.” Dan said, a little sheepishly, as if he was hiding something.
They got back in the Taurus and continued on toward his Uncle Jacob and Aunt Mary’s place on Governor Drive, where he had a not too unpleasant reunion with his grandfather’s brother and his wife. Technically, they were his great aunt and uncle, like his Aunt Helen, but Dan never thought of them that way and had gotten along with them just fine before he’d left. He’d had very little contact with them since he’s left, apart from exchanging Christmas cards. But that was fine with him. They seemed genuinely glad to see him and promised that they’d be there for the viewing this evening as well as the funeral on Saturday. They had also already let what few remaining relatives Dan had know about the funeral, thus saving him more awkward phone calls. And for that, he was very grateful.