Dan and Bill entered the funeral home through the back entrance. They went through the building to the front so they could find out which room Chulkie’s viewing was in. There was only one other viewing that night, and it wasn’t until eight. So it was a simple matter to find it. Rich Buchanon was already there with, as he was later introduced, Rich’s assistant Roy something or other. The two of them would be working the viewing that evening.
In this country superpatriotism rests on the dubious assumption that the United States is endowed with superior virtue and has a unique history and special place in the world. For the American superpatriot, nationalistic pride, or “Americanism,” is placed above every other public consideration. Whether or not superpatriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, as Dr. Johnson might say, it is a highly emotive force used by political leaders and ordinary citizens to muffle discourse.
- Michael Parenti, Superpatriotism (2004)
Dan was the first to arrive, Rich told him. Roy started to add something, but Rick stopped him. Dan wondered about the car he saw leaving but said nothing. When Dan looked up at the back of the room, he saw the casket lying there, with the figure of his grandmother inside.
Rich saw Dan look up, stopping cold, and asked him. “Do you want to have a look?”
Dan didn’t say anything; he just nodded and slowly walked up the casket. He’d always felt uneasy about seeing the dead, and he had to fight that tendency now, as he always had. No matter how many of these he came to, it never got any easier. At his mother’s viewing, her mother, Granbecca, was so distraught she’d tried to climb into the coffin with her. She had to be physically restrained and pulled away from the coffin. That was the last funeral he’d been to in Dutch Wonderland.
As he approached the casket, he could see his grandmother’s face. She looked much older than he remembered he looking the last time he’d seen her. Of course, that was twenty years ago. It was hard to tell what was her natural face and what was a trick of the embalmer. There were many more wrinkles and liver spots, but she looked otherwise like his Chulkie. He was flooded with memories of being at her house, her easy laugh, the smell of her cooking. His mind made the sight of her more animated than the dead shell of her body would allow.
He closed his eyes and saw her alive again, standing in her back yard, the Christmas trees behind her. She’s smiling at Dan and calling him over to see something. He remembers this moment now. He knows what’s coming next. He was maybe nine or ten. It was spring. She’d found a robin’s egg that had fallen from the nest. He ran to her and she placed it in his hand. He stared at the pale speckled blue and rolled it around in his hand. It was heavy. She explained to him that they could not put the egg back in the nest. Now that they had touched it, the mother robin would not go near the scent of a human. He cried to think that the bird inside the egg would never be born. Chulkie put her arms around him and pulled her tightly into her dress and the tears poured out of him.
He found when he opened his eyes in the present that the tears were still there. She had been his rock, the one person who fought for him, who did her best to make his life a little more bearable. Without her sanctuary, Dan wasn’t sure where he’d be today. He felt a little ashamed that he had abandoned her along with everyone else when he fled town for California. She had already slipped into dementia by the time he’d left, but somehow that excuse seemed hollow now. He squeezed her hands, which were folded across her midsection. They were surprisingly cold. Rationally, he knew they would be but emotionally he had half expected, or at least hoped, they would be warm and that he was still ten years old, standing in her back yard on a bright spring day. But the cold jolted him back to the reality of the situation and he stood up stiffly. He bent down again and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
Wiping the tears from his face, he turned to walk back to the other side of the room. He was surprised to see that there were now other people in the room. Several of his relatives and a few of his old friends had arrived while he was paying his respects to Chulkie. His Aunt George and Uncle Amy were there, along with his Aunt Helen. Also Jacob and Mary, which was most of the Pilgers, his mother’s side of the family. By rights he should have been a Schaeffer, but after his father died, his mother started using her maiden name again and for convenience sake, so did Dan. So at age three, his identity was irrevocably altered and he considered himself a Pilger what for him seemed his whole life. It was a strange circumstance, but it rarely was a problem since nobody except those closest to Dan really understood that Pilger had not been his father’s surname.
Adam was there, and so were his friends Brian Kendall and Jeff Screpsi. The people with them were undoubtedly their wives, who he’d never met. One of the wives moved, and he saw John Weaver standing there. That was unexpected. John lived in upstate New York, many hours from here and when he’d e-mailed John about his travel plans he never expected that he’d drive down for the funeral. John was in the computer business and so he regularly came to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which was Santa Clara County, a short distance south of the city. He was one of only a handful of friends from Dutch Wonderland who had seen anything of Dan’s new life in California.
Dan went up to John first, and embraced him warmly. He then hugged the rest of his old friends, and was introduced to each of their wives for the first time. It was almost a surreal experience and he would have preferred to stay talking with his friends but he had to make time for his relatives, too. So he spent some time talking with them, as well. Over the course of the two hours the viewing had been scheduled for, only a few dozen people came and went. Dan knew all but a few of them. The ones he hadn’t known had been caregivers from the home, neighbors that had not been there before he’d left and a couple whose connection to his grandmother remained a mystery.
No Trixie, he realized as the end of the viewing drew closer. She had not shown up. He wasn’t sure he had wanted to see her again, but she had been on his mind all night, all the same. It was inevitable, but he tried not to think about it. He tried to concentrate on his friends who had made the effort to be there, even though they had not seen Dan in twenty years. That made him feel pretty good, actually, like he had made a difference in their lives, too. A few other friends had came and went and all had promised that they’d be at the wake tomorrow. It was sounding more and more like he might actually get a decent turnout after all. A last hurrah, he thought. After all the parties he’d gone to and all the parties he’d thrown, there was going to be at least one more Shillington soiree.
As the viewing drew to a close, he said his goodbyes to the people who’d lingered to the end, mostly relatives and just a few friends. As he was leaving the viewing room, he saw them close his grandmother’s coffin for what was going to be the last time. He excused himself and walked back in for one last look. Then he joined everybody in the lobby of the funeral home and they all walked out to the parking lot together. The darkness was now complete, but the smoke of the fires could still be seen in the hills. The air was thick the burning leaves and smoke swirls could be seen wherever they intersected with the light from the lampposts in the parking lot and streets. The night seemed eerie as a result of the fires.
As he reached his car, Bill caught up to him and they both got in. “Well, that was a dandy viewing, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, it went pretty well, I guess.” Dan reflected. “It was really nice that so many people showed up. I wouldn’t have guessed at the number who came. I guess the word got out and people I haven’t seen for two decades came to pay their respects. That felt good, it really did.”
“Of course, it could have been the novelty of seeing what you looked like after so much time.” Bill speculated.
Dan laughed. “You sound like me now. Yeah, I thought about that, but if that were the case they would have just come tomorrow night for the wake. That way, they wouldn’t have to see a dead body and pretend to be sympathetic. They could just get drunk.”
“Hey, yeah.” Bill replied, impressed. “That’s a good point. You’re right.”
“I’m feeling like I inspired some long term loyalty. After twenty years, those people felt strongly enough that I was a good enough person to spend some time with me.” Dan beamed.
“Yeah.” Bill began. “So where was Trixie?”
“Damn.” Dan muttered. “You couldn’t let me have my moment? Not even for a little while longer.”
Bill ducked, expecting to be smacked at any moment. “Sorry, dude. You were getting a little too full or yourself. I had to bring you back to reality.”
“Shit, I’m hungry. Let’s get something to eat.” Dan declared. “And a beer.”
“By the way, why did you use the word ‘loyalty’ about your friends?” Bill asked. “It’s not like you were their leader or they’re rooting for the home team. It just seemed like a strange choice of words, that’s all.”
Dan drove through Wyomissing and West Reading toward downtown Reading in search of food. “I don’t know.” He finally admitted. “I guess it was a poor choice of words.”
“I wasn’t trying to pick on you.” Bill assured him. “You just usually choose your words so carefully that it sort of stood out. Loyalty is almost always to either a ruler of some kind or an institution.”
“But you can be loyal to your friends.” Dan countered.
“Sure.” Bill agreed. “Absolutely. But you’re usually only loyal in a specific instance, like if somebody insults a friend and you stick up for them out of loyalty.”
“Isn’t that like them showing up tonight out of loyalty?” Dan asked.
Bill shook his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s the same. They came out of friendship, for old times sake, or because you were someone who was once important to them. It can’t be loyalty. No matter how much you wish it were otherwise, your friends of twenty years ago can’t be your friends in exactly the same way they used to be. It’s just impossible. Maybe if you’d never left and you’d kept up the same level of contact with them you had when you were in high school. But otherwise the nature of the friendship has to change. People change. And they change differently.”
“That’s why so many marriages end. It’s not always someone’s fault. Sometimes one of them just changes at a different rate or in a different direction than the other. If the two new people are no longer compatible, you’ve got a problem. Part of my problem, and most likely the real reason I’m giving you such a hard time is because I hate the word loyalty. Loyalty is such bullshit. It starts really early in a person’s life. You’re taught to be loyal to your school, to sports teams, to your state, your country, to whatever organizations you belong to like the boy scouts or your church. And they’re totally irrational. Who cares if your high school football team beats some other high school? Why should you root for them? Do you know anybody on the team? Why is it important in any way for your school’s team to win? Most likely you didn’t choose the school you’re going to, so what’s the rationale for giving them your loyalty?”
“I agree with you, wholeheartedly.” Dan offered. “But I’d even take it a step farther. I think that’s precisely what brainwashes you into a mindset that allows you to be used in all sorts of ways throughout your life. It’s what allows jingoism and superpatriotism. That’s how we get hoodwinked time and time again into going to war. There has not been one war in modern history that the people asked for, absent any propaganda from the government. Our leaders, both political and business, are the ones that want war. It’s good for them. But the people who actually have to fight the war only support it because of the massive propaganda machine. In modern times, it probably started with the Spanish-American war when we used the accidental explosion of the battleship Maine to foment a war with Spain. But it was really perfected in World War One. They even set up a department of the government with the express goal of propaganda. That’s when the whole public relations industry started. They took everything they learned getting the masses to hate the Hun, even though a very large percentage of Americans were of German ancestry, and turned it toward business and advertising. It was so effective, Adolf Hitler used it as the model for his propaganda machine in Germany. And it’s been that way with every single war America has been in since, including World War Two.”
“But it’s the irrational fealty we’re taught when we’re young that makes it possible in the first place. If children were taught to think critically and for themselves, they could draw their own conclusions about what is presented to them. It would also give them the tools to examine, recognize and analyze propaganda, which would help them in all sorts of ways. But business would suffer. It would be harder for advertisers to persuade people of their questionable claims, not to mention what it would do to the entertainment business. If people had the skills and confidence to decide for themselves what they liked, what would happen to the critics and award shows and sales charts that are to essentially people what to like? They would be ignored like the cheap hacks and fraudulent shills they are. An entirely useless group would have nothing to do, no one who would listen to their pronouncements from on high. They would be reduced to creating something of their own instead of tearing down the work of others. That they’re paid any respect at all is a testament to how well the system works.”
“That anyone pays any attention whatsoever to charts like the Billboard 100 is an even greater mystery. I guess it’s the herd mentality. Why the fuck do people care what other people are listening to? Are they really that insecure that they need to be reassured about their taste in music? How pathetic. And the really sad thing is that assumes that the charts are a true and accurate reflection of what’s actually popular? They’re not. The charts have always been are still are completely corrupt. How can anyone take them seriously? But I guess people will always believe it if it’s in print. And why are we so gullible? Because we’re trained to be obedient from the day we’re born.”
“I know I sound like a broken record, but we’re simply taught facts, and many of those are simply wrong, especially in history. We’re taught not only not to question them, but usually not even the background on how they were arrived upon. Just remember this and shut up. You learn that, and you’ll do well in school. You do well in school, and your life may turn out okay. But all they ask for in exchange is your soul.”
“Man, I really wound you up again, didn’t I?” Bill heckled.
“It doesn’t take much these days.” Dan admitted. “I feel like the world is just a fraud everywhere you look at it honestly and openly. So much of our society is based on a foundation that’s a lie. Most of our cherished traditions have their roots in something awful, if not downright evil. The fact that we can function as a society with all this hypocrisy is just baffling. How can so many people be so ignorant? Part of it is we’re lied to so often and so openly that we can’t tell the difference. So we simply don’t question anything. I think many people have just decided to not think too much about anything and take it all at face value.”
“Take the attacks on September 11th, for example. Right afterwards, any dissent about our response to it was considered practically a treasonous act. People lost their jobs for their opinions. And the rhetoric at the time was that they hated our freedoms. And our reaction was to limit them? Could that have been more obviously contradictory and hypocritical? Yet the press never mentioned it all. They just goose stepped along on the march to war, and there was never any serious public debate at all. The attitude was we have to be together on this, so there can’t be any disagreement. But that was precisely the time when disagreement would have shown how a healthy democracy is supposed to function. Of course, the fallacy in my argument is we don’t actually have a real democracy. That’s one of the open lies I was talking about. It’s just everything. It’s very depressing.”
Dan turned the car onto Penn Street and after a few blocks they were on the Penn Street bridge heading into downtown Reading. Downtown Reading fit Dan’s mood perfectly. It too was depressing, a once great industrial city reduced to boarded up buildings, rampant homelessness, and crime. Everyone that could afford to had long ago moved to the suburbs, leaving the city to rot and decay. Dan hoped the Peanut Bar was still in business, because he needed a drink and he remembered their food as being at least decent, if not world class.
He was in luck, the dancing peanut still adorned the wall in relief outside the bar and the lights were on. He found a space on the street and parked the car.
“C’mon, Bill.” Dan said. “You’ll love this place. And I need a drink.”