And after all, what is a lie? ‘Tis but
The truth in masquerade; and I defy
Historians -— heroes — lawyers — priests, to put
A fact without some leaven of a lie.
- Lord Byron, Don Juan, 11.37 (1819-24)
Time was beginning to run short. There were only a few hours before the viewing and less than two days before his flight back to California would take him out of this hell, possibly forever. Dan was feeling like there would not be enough time to take it all in, to put it all behind him, once and for all. Of course, he still wasn’t sure that was even possible. The flood of memories was almost non-stop now. When he wasn’t confronting them head on, he was reminded of something indirectly. As a result, a kind of momentum was building but Dan couldn’t be sure where it was leading. He was feeling comfortable being back home, perhaps a little too comfortable. It was like putting on an old sweater you’d forgotten about and finding it still fit and was just as cozy as you remembered it. But something still wasn’t quite right, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
He was just driving around now, unsure of where to go. It was too early to go home and get ready but there wasn’t enough time to do much else. He wished there were more people from his past he could talk to now, but he had no idea where most of them were so that was all but impossible, especially with only a few days left of his trip.
As they slowly drove down yet another non-descript suburban street, Dan saw a woman walking along the pavement who looked oddly familiar. He slowed down even more to get a better look, and sure enough, she looked a lot like a girl he’d once known, Kathy Zook, or as everyone called her, KZ.
Dan pushed the button that lowered the window, letting in the brisk November air. As pulled up even with the woman, he called out to her. “KZ! Hey KZ!”
She turned immediately toward Dan. It was her. She looked a little older, of course, but it was definitely Kathy. At first she looked a little unsure, like she was caught off guard. As she walked up to the car, he could see a look of recognition cross her face.
“Dan? Oh my god, Dan. Is that really you?” She said, her voice growing louder.
Dan stopped the car and got out. “Yeah, it’s me. How are you?” He asked her.
“I’m good. Good.” She replied, walking up to the car and giving him a big bear hug. When she finally let him go, she slapped him across the face. Not hard enough to hurt him, but enough to let him know she was serious about whatever made her hit him. “Where the hell have you been? You disappeared.” This time she lightly punched him in the shoulder.
Dan recoiled in mock terror. “Geez. Stop beating me up. I live in California now.”
“Really?” She looked surprised. “How long have been there?”
“About twenty-five years.” Dan replied. And then he reminded her about Trixie and his mother’s murder and Rick and all those past events.
“Oh, wow.” She said when Dan was finished. “I’d forgotten all about that. That was a long time ago, wasn’t it? I can’t believe that it was twenty-five years ago.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Dan agreed. “It sure doesn’t seem like so much time has passed. I mean I don’t really feel that much older, do you?”
“Sometimes. But no, most of the time it feels like just yesterday we were still in high school, going to keg parties, or making out in somebody’s parents bedroom.” KZ chuckled to herself.
“Ouch.” Dan recoiled. “I’d forgotten all about that. Not my finest hour.” He and KZ had once sort of dated for a few weeks in the fall of their senior year. It was just basically fooling around at parties when they were both drunk. They occasionally did stuff sober and even during the day but not very often. After a while, Dan had slid out of the relationship and gone back with Donna. It was a pattern he’d often repeated throughout his high school years before he’d met Trixie after graduation. KZ had taken it pretty well at the time, and they’d remained friends. But Dan was getting the impression now that it had not been as smooth as Dan thought.
“No. It was fine.” Kathy repeated. “I mean I was pissed at the time. But now, who cares?”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Dan asked.
“No point. I wasn’t in love with you. We were just having fun, that’s all. I thought it might turn into something, but it didn’t. What would I have said?” KZ pondered.
“I was really immature back then. I don’t know why, but I had a hard time growing up.” Dan admitted.
“Tell me about it.” She laughed. “No, you were about average in my experience. We were just kids, that’s all.”
They talked for a while longer, catching up and trading the highlights of their respective twenty years. It turned out KZ had married Bob Hoffman, a guy Dan knew pretty well from band. But it only lasted about ten years. They had a daughter, Ellie, that lived with KZ now. She sounded pretty happy, Dan thought to himself. He invited her to the wake Saturday night and she promised she’d try to make it.
When he got back in the car, Bill was all questions. “She was pretty hot, who was that?”
“You should have seen her twenty-five years ago.” Dan told him.
“She going to come to the party?” Bill asked, a little too lasciviously.
“Maybe.” Dan replied tentatively. “Why?”
“Hey, no offense, but if I’m going to haunt someone I’d rather it be her.” Bill drooled.
“I guess I can’t blame you. You want me to pass her a note and ask her how she feels about necrophilia? Dan smirked.
“Everybody’s a comedian.” Bill said, shaking his head, but still laughing along. “By the way, are you going to know every woman we happen to see? Doesn’t that seem a little strange to you?”
“No. There have plenty of people, women and men, who we’ve walked past, driven past or been in line with that I didn’t know. In fact, odds are most of the people we’ve seen I don’t know. Though I’m willing to bet the degrees of separation for almost everyone here in Shillington is only one or two degrees. With only around five or six thousand people, if you grew up here you’re bound to have met a pretty healthy percentage of the population. And the ones you haven’t met, you almost certainly would know someone they knew.” Dan explained.
“I guess so. That almost makes sense.” Bill agreed. “I hadn’t thought about it like that before.”
“That’s what makes small towns so unique. Well, maybe unique isn’t the right word. Perhaps it’s one of their defining qualities. There are no secrets in a small town. Everybody knows everyone else’s business. That’s both a positive quality and a negative one. It’s positive because people can look out for one another. They can make sure each other’s kids are safe. They can make the town in a real sense how they want to through local politics, or perhaps they could have many years ago. I’m not sure that’s as true today as it once was.”
“But for me, at least, the negatives outweigh the positives. It’s also not necessarily good that everyone’s business is an open book. Some stuff you might want to stay private. When everyone knows your entire history, the mistakes you’ve made, your failures, well that makes it a lot harder to overcome them because it’s not enough for you to work past them and become a better person. Everyone else has to, in a sense, let you overcome them. And the other problem with small towns is small-mindedness. Remember when I said being in a small towns means people can look out for one another? Well that’s true, but only if they actually do look out for you. And in many cases, they won’t because of some slight perhaps ten years earlier. My grandmother, for example, not Chulkie, the other one, Granbecca, she once had a fight about me when I was maybe a few years old with her sister, who lived on the other side of town. The disagreement was incredibly mindless; something like her sister thought it was a bad idea to let me stand up in the front seat of the car while she was driving. Granbecca didn’t talk to her sister for over twenty years, not until just before my aunt passed away did they make up. And that, in my experience, was just typical small town behavior. People in small towns seem to hold grudges forever. Think the Hatfields and the McCoys. That was just an extreme example of small town behavior.”
“Now I don’t think urban cities are better, just different. In a city, you’re largely anonymous. That, too, is both good and bad. You don’t get any of the positive aspects of small town life, but of course you don’t get the negatives, either. Nothing is that simple, naturally, and cities have their own set of benefits and problems. The benefits are that you can escape your past, even your recent past. There’s enough of a population that not everyone can know about, much less hold you accountable for your failures. So you can, in effect, more easily recover from missteps. But you’re also apt to be less careful about what you do, too. One-night stands are easier because there’s much less social stigma attached to them. You’re much less likely to see that person day in and day out or know all of their friends like you would in a small town. When I was a kid, if you went out with a person one time, you were going steady with that person. There was no such thing as dating around. You had to essentially break up with a person even if you’d only gone on one date. It was weird. But if you didn’t, no other girl would go out with you because they thought you were attached. So in an urban setting, you’re less cautious about your standing in society, especially when you’re younger. That can be liberating. I know it was for me when I first moved to San Francisco.”
“But of course, nothing is perfect. In cities, precisely because of the anonymity, it’s harder to make new friends. The very transiency of cities makes close ties take much longer to form. When we first moved to Shillington from Mohnton, it took about a year for the neighbors to accept us as one of them. When I moved to San Francisco, it took two or three years before I felt like I had an equivalent kind of acceptance. So the first couple of years, I felt very alone. That was a crucial time for me. I thought about coming back a lot. I was miserable much of the time, and it felt like I’d never adapt to living in such a populous place. But of course eventually I did. And the funny thing was, over time I met a lot of people who were originally from Pennsylvania. It was weird, at first, but there were maybe a dozen people I met in very different circumstances who were all transplants from the Keystone State. It helped a little to know I wasn’t completely alone, at least psychologically.”
“You’ve thought about this a lot, haven’t you?” Bill interrupted, smirking.
“Well, I had a lot of time to myself those first few years.” Dan explained. “And I have a predisposition for over self-reflection.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.” Bill chastened.
“Nobody’s keeping you here.” Dan rebuffed him.
Bill stuck out his lower lip comically. “Don’t you want me here?”
“I didn’t say that.” Dan said defensively. “I’ve actually grown quite accustomed to having my own ghost. I think I’d miss you if you were gone.”
“Aw-shucks.” Said Bill, pretending to kick the ground with his boot.
Dan reached over and smacked Bill in the shoulder with a flip of the back of his hand. “Alright, alright. Let’s not get carried away.”
“What time is it?” Bill asked, rubbing his shoulder mockingly.
“It’s just about five.” Dan said, checking his watch. “We’ve got about an hour before the viewing. I guess I should head back to the house. I can’t say I’m in a big hurry to get to the viewing.”
“Why not?” Bill asked.
“A room full of all my remaining relatives is not my idea of a good time. It’s been so long since I’ve seen them that I honestly don’t know what we have in common anymore. Plus there’s the lingering Trixie problem: will she be there? And if so, what then? If not, what does that mean? You’re here because of Trixie, which means something involving her should happen, but what? Then there’s the church trying to steal from my grandmother.”
“Man, you really are a ‘glass is half empty’ person, aren’t you? Bill said, shaking his head.
“Yeah, I guess I’m not really a fucking ray of sunshine, am I.” Dan replied, quoting Bill.
They both laughed at that, and Dan pulled up the driveway and parked the car at the house, leaving the car outside since they’d be leaving again shortly.
The house seemed more empty than usual, probably because Dan had removed all the photographs to ship back to California. Many of the walls and tabletops were bare where a picture had been. He had taken all of the photos, even the ones of people he didn’t know, like the young girl with the obvious family resemblance that he didn’t recognize. He figured it might come to him later. There were a few of Chulkie’s knick-knacks that he associated with her that he also boxed up, because he wanted a few mementos to keep around the house that reminded him of the innocent days he’d spent at the house his father helped build.
Dan went into the bedroom to change, while Bill got himself a beer of the refrigerator. Dan hung the hanger on the mirror and unzipped the Boscov’s bag, pulling out the plain blue suit. He found the ironing board in a hall closet and pressed his shirt. Then he took a quick shower, shaving again to look his best. He wasn’t sure who he was trying to impress but he felt he shouldn’t show up for Chulkie’s viewing looking like a slob.
He dressed and surveyed himself in the bedroom mirror. He looked a little out of place in a suit, but overall he didn’t think he looked too bad. He looked respectable, at least; whatever that meant. He took off his jacket, hanging it on the back of a chair in the kitchen, and got himself a beer.
“Wow, you clean up nice.” Bill joked.
“Thanks.” Dan said sarcastically. “How bad does it look?”
“You look fine. Really. I’m sure Trixie will think you’re still very handsome.” Bill told him.
Dan looked over at Bill with a look that said “drop dead.”
“Sorry.” Bill backpedaled. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Really.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Dan reassured, standing up and downing the rest of his beer. “I’m going to brush my teeth and then we can get out of here.”
Dusk was out in full force as they got back in the Minotaur to drive to the funeral home for the viewing. It would be dark within the hour, Dan guessed. Throughout the neighborhood, people were burning their leaves in big metal drums. Smoke rose above the houses everywhere they looked. The occasional orange and red flames could be seen peeking between the homes. The fireflies were coming out in force, giving the scene an eerie glow of smoke and fire. It only took a few minutes to get to the home. There were only a few cars in the parking lot. Most likely they were employees, since it was still about fifteen minutes before six o’clock.
A car was pulling out of the lot, just as Dan shut off the engine and put the Taurus in park. Two women were in the late-model car, which looked like a Japanese car of some kind, Dan thought. Perhaps it was a Honda. The woman in the passenger seat looked like a dead ringer for Trixie, but not how he expected to see her. The woman looked like she was eighteen, maybe a little older. It was hard to tell from the quick look Dan got as the car drove past him but it was definitely not a woman who would be in her early forties, as Trixie would be now. But that was impossible, wasn’t it?