Music poured out of the bar as Dan opened the heavy wooden door. Inside the light was bright and loud. Their feet crunched on the peanuts that thickly littered the floor, and Bill gave Dan a look of confusion.
The unity of freedom has never relied on uniformity of opinion.
- John F. Kennedy, State of the Union Address (1962)
“What the hell is all over the floor?” He demanded.
Dan surreptitiously pointed to the bowls of peanuts on every table and along the bar, but continued making his way toward the rear of the long, narrow bar. Along the larger right side, tables were filled with customers. In the back were booths, and Dan found an empty one around the corner. “Perfect.” He said, telling Bill to get in first.
He ordered two Yuengling Lagers and asked for a menu. Their waitress was all business and didn’t bat an eye at the double order. In the corner and behind Dan, Bill could also drink. Dan felt like he wasn’t drinking alone that way, even though to everyone else that’s exactly what it looked like.
“So what’s the deal with the peanut shells all over the floor?” Bill asked.
“That’s their shtick, their gimmick. Their t-shirts say ‘Sorry, No Elephants’ on the back, which is cheesy but a little funny. They’ve always had the bowls of peanuts everywhere, and there are signs all over the place saying to just throw the shells on the floor. The place has been here as long as I can remember. I think since the 1920s, at least.”
“Rick used to bring my Mom and me in here all the time. I think he knew the owner or at least some of the bartenders. Of course, Rick seemed to know all the bars in town. I think we ate more than half of our meals out at bars, or at least restaurants with bars. I spent a lot of time in bars as a kid. They were a lot of fun. Nobody worried if I spilled, there were pinball machines and other games, they were loud so I didn’t have to be quiet, and they always had food I liked. I still love pub food to this day. Anything fried and greasy, I love it. So when I told my friend’s parents, they often seemed appalled by my being in bars. But that was one of the Rick things that didn’t bother me at all. Of course, that was when he was relatively still a ‘good drunk’ meaning he hadn’t progressed to the more psychotic, violent behavior that marked his later years, when I was in junior high and high school.”
“Admittedly, some of the places we went were a little on the skanky side, but for the most part the drunks in the bars were usually pretty nice to me. They taught me to play pool, shuffleboard, and even how to throw darts. And I wasn’t always the only kid in the bar. In those days, it seems like it wasn’t all that unusual for there to be several families at any given bar. So I even had playmates at the bars, which was sometimes better than being at home alone. To this day, most bars seem very comfortable and almost homey to me. In a way, it’s like I grew up in bars.”
“Once I was twenty-one and was living back in this area, I started going to some of the bars I remembered from when I was a kid. Birch Tavern, Stanley’s, Nick’s and the Wagon Wheel, to name a few. I wanted to join the Pennwyn Club in Mohnton, but I had no idea how to go about it. I was only in there a couple of time with Rick. It was a key club, meaning you had to be a member to even enter the place. Your yearly membership literally included the key to the front door, which is why they called them key clubs.”
“Wow, that’s pretty cool.” Bill interrupted, enthusiastically.
“Not only that.” Dan continued. “They were open twenty-four hours a day, even on holidays. They were, or are — I don’t know if they’re around anymore — holdovers from before a lot of the blue laws. So their hours were grandfathered in and they could stay open whenever they wanted. There are a number of these semi-exclusive clubs all over the city. Rick belonged to at least three of them that I knew about.”
“How did you get into them? I mean how did you get to be a member? Was it hard to in?” Bill asked, clearly interested.
“I don’t think you had to take a test of anything. As far as I could tell, you just had to know somebody who was already a member. Then they sponsored you to be a member and you were voted in. But since it was all about the annual dues, I think they took anybody who seemed okay to the group. There was this one in Reading — I can’t remember the name of it — Rick took me there a few times when I was older, during a period of time when we were trying to get along. Anyway, once we were there on my birthday and Rick sponsored me for membership. I think it was his way of trying to be a decent guy. Who knows? Anyway, a few weeks later I got a letter in the mail about it. All I had to do next was show up at a membership committee meeting, and I think it said they were held once a month, or something like that. I told Rick about it, and he told me they just wanted to make sure I wasn’t black or Puerto Rican. Needless to say, I never followed up on it. There was no way I was joining a club that was so blatantly racist.”
“Maybe it was a generational thing, maybe it was just Rick, I don’t know. But he grew up in the inner city of Reading, and had lots of black friends but he always called them the “N” word, even to their faces. I remember cringing every time I heard him say it. This might not have been the most liberal or enlightened place to grow up, it is a very conservative place, politically and socially, but none of my friends used the term and I don’t think I grew up with any prejudices like that. I never heard any of my friend’s parents use the term, either. So it was only Rick and the people he ran around with that I heard use it. They were often blatantly racist, but acted like it was perfectly normal. It was very strange. I was growing up in this largely homogeneous white suburban environment probably like any other suburb in America, but when I went just a few miles into the city of Reading with Rick, it was like entering another world entirely. Here there were people of all colors with ethnic speech patterns and in some cases their own patois. I found it fascinating but I also felt a little uneasy because it was so different from what I was used to. You grew up in a suburb of Houston, didn’t you?”
“Yeah.” Bill answered. “It was called Nottingham Forest.”
“No, seriously?” Dan said, shaking his head.
“No kidding.” Bill admitted sheepishly.
“And were you Robin Hood?” Dan chuckled. “No, wait. Will Scarlet?”
“Funny.” Bill replied, taking a swig of his lager.
“I thought so.” Dan beamed.
“It was probably a lot like your experience was, although the racism was perhaps a bit more blatant, I imagine. It was Texas, after all.” Bill offered. “The more I traveled around the country, I found that most people’s experiences were pretty similar, especially across class lines. And with the rise of chain stores, shopping malls and cable television, even the physical look of towns all over the place was becoming more and more the same.”
“You’re probably right. I couldn’t say, but while it seems like the ignorant are everywhere, they seem to be headquartered in the south somewhere, and most likely Texas.” Dan agreed.
“That’s probably true. I met some real yahoos in the south. But they were everywhere you looked, really. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of your fair share right here.” Bill waved his hands to indicate the bar.
“No doubt.” Dan agreed, taking a long look around the room.
“So, are you bummed Trixie didn’t show?” Bill asked point blank.
“In a way, I suppose. There was a part of me that thought if I was going to see her at all this trip, this was going to be it. This is where she’d put in an appearance, I figured. So I guess it’s over, I can stop waiting for it to happen. I don’t mean over between us, that happened a very long time ago. I thought maybe we’d get a chance to end things differently. Not closure, really, I hate that term. But I thought just maybe we could talk like adults about what happened and put it behind us. We were very good friends once upon a time, I don’t see why we shouldn’t still be friends, at least.”
“Maybe she blames you for being shot and traumatized for the rest of her life?” Bill suggested.
“Yeah.” Dan laughed sadly. “I guess that’s possible. I know it’s not my fault what happened, but I could see how it would be very easy to blame me as a way of coping with it.”
“So you don’t blame yourself?” Bill asked.
“Oh, sure. I used to, believe me, but not anymore.” Dan replied. “I used to do nothing but talk about it. It’s a wonder I have any friends at all in California. But eventually, I got to a place where I no longer thought it was all my fault, and I stopped talking about it and got on with my life.”
The waitress returned to take their orders. Dan ordered two Prima Pils from nearby Victory Brewing Company. He had been excited to find it on their draft list because it was one of the best pilsners made on the East Coast. He then told her was very hungry and ordered two dinners. She was too busy to care, and was gone before he could tell her the well thought out cover explanation he’d come up with.
“Well that was easy.” He said, to no one in particular.
“What?” Bill asked.
“I had a whole story worked out about why I was ordering so much food to avoid any suspicion. It’s bad enough I can see and talk to Bilbo the Friendly Ghost, I don’t need anyone else to know about it. People think I’m eccentric enough without adding seeing things to my nutball resume. But she couldn’t have cared less.”
“Hey, I’m not that friendly.” Bill retaliated, feeling a little insulted. “Are you ashamed of me?” He asked, now pouting.
“Dude.” Dan replied, rolling his eyes. “What are you talking about? I’m not trying to insult you. You are my friend. But there’s no getting around one fact. You’re my ‘dead’ friend and that probably won’t sit too well with the average living person. I’m taking a risk just sitting here talking and drinking with you. Did you think of that?”
“Can I get another beer?” Bill said, ignoring Dan, but smirking all the same.
Dan looked over at Bill, a little incredulously.
“Gotcha.” He blurted.
“Yeah, you did.” Dan admitted. “I thought you were serious. Bastard.”
“Well I’m feeling pretty good.” Bill admitted. “Oh, sure I could dwell on the fact that I’m dead. But for whatever reason, my soul is alive and well and living on after all. I’ve had a few beers and I’ve got food coming. I’m with my good, live friend, Dan the man. What more could I ask for?” He paused for a few seconds, adding. “Okay, maybe some mushrooms and a pretty brunette? That would be nice.”
The food and a third round of beers arrived. Dan waited until the waitress had left before handing Bill his beer. He ordered Hot Roast Beef for himself and got Bill a Pork BBQ sandwich, which was one of the blue plate specials. They dug in and started eating almost immediately and a short silence fell over the booth. This silence continued while they finished most of what was on their two plates.
At some point during the feast, as he was just about clearing off his plate, Bill looked up and saw a middle-eastern looking man sitting opposite him in the booth. The man smiled and made eye contact with Bill. Bill stopped stuffing himself, and poked Dan in the ribs with his elbow.
“Hey!” Dan exclaimed. “Watch it.”
Bill ignored him, saying. “Can you see him?”
“Who?” Dan replied but saw who Bill meant as he lifted his head from his plate.”
“Him.” Bill said, pointing. “Cause I think he can see me.”
“Yeah, I can see him.” Dan said tentatively.
“Hello.” The man said. He was wearing a non-descript white robe of some kind. It could have been from anywhere, but it definitely looked out of place in Dutch Wonderland.
“Hey.” Dan said. “Can you see my friend?”
“Of course.” Said the stranger. “I, too, am dead, and have come among the living.”
Bill stretched his arm across the table and offered to shake the man’s hand. “Hi. I’m Bill.” He said matter-of-factly. “Who are you?”
“I am Muhammad.”
Bill turned to Dan. “It’s Muhammad.”
“Yeah, I heard that, too.” Dan said sarcastically. He looked around, but nobody else seemed to see Muhammad except for the two of them.
“So how come you know English?” Bill asked.
“Allah never sent a messenger save with the language of his folk, that he might make it clear for them.” Muhammad told them.
“Oh, well that makes sense.” Dan was not taking this seriously. Of course, neither was Bill, and he at least had reason to believe this was really happening.
“Why do you mock me?” The stranger asked. “Do you doubt I am who I say I am?”
“Well, sort of. Yeah, I do. Bill here is weird enough and I could believe he is a hallucination or that he lives inside my mind.” Dan explained. “But I don’t really know very much about Islam, but what I do know I’m not terribly fond of, at least I’m not any more fond of it than the other sky-god religions. I think they’re all hogwash and collectively are the single worst idea in the history of mankind. So I’m not picking on you specifically, but here you are, so you’re getting the brunt of it. If Jesus were sitting next to you, I’d be giving him a hard time, too. So you shouldn’t take it personally. I’m just not having a very good week, that’s all.”
Turning to Bill, Muhammad asked. “Why is he damned?”
“Who, Dan?” Bill clarified.
“Yes, of course, him.” Muhammad said, pointing at Dan.
“He’s not.” Bill said flatly. “I’m leading him through hell. It’s okay. I’ve got special permission. You want to see my pass?”
Dan turned immediately to say something to Bill, but he raised his finger to indicate he should wait a minute.
“That is truly remarkable.” Muhammad said, as he dangled his foot off the side of bench. “The dead among us will simply not believe it.”
“You’re probably right. It is unique, I’ll grant you that.” Bill admitted. “It’s certainly my first time. So you’re a messenger. Do you have a message for us?”
“I do.” Muhammad began. “Beware of schisms. They will be your undoing. The devil will spread divisiveness. You must change what is in yourself. The present life is naught but a diversion and a sport; surely the Last Abode is Life, did they but know.”
“I always thought of it as a ride.” Bill interjected.
“Hey, that’s right.” Dan remembered, turning toward Bill. “What he said is awfully close to what you used to say at the end of your act.”
When they both turned back, Muhammad was gone. “Well that was rude. He didn’t even say goodbye.” Bill pouted. “Just when it was getting interesting. Well, I guess he was finished. He probably has lots of vague, cryptic messages to deliver.” They both laughed at this, though Dan thought to himself he must look a little strange laughing to himself so loudly.
“Should we get out of here?” Bill asked.
“Yeah, I guess so. I’m finished. You?” Dan shot back, though he already knew the answer.
Dan left cash along with a good tip, and they stood up. The place was now more crowded and a group of four quickly took their place in the back booth. They appeared a little annoyed that Dan had been taking up a large booth by himself and one of them bumped into him purposely as he passed each other. Dan steeled himself against the inevitable confrontation that would follow, and he turned to meet the large man’s angry stare. They stood about a foot or two apart and just as the man began to speak, Bill smacked him in the head, knocking him back. He looked disoriented and had a surprised look on his face.
“How did you do that?” He demanded. “Your arms were at your side.”
His friends rushed back to him, shouting. “Bert, what’s going on?” One of them asked.
But Bert just waved them back, with a look of shock still on his face. Bill smacked him again, and this time Dan was even farther away. His friends froze as they saw his head snap back as if he’d just been hit.
“C’mon, Dan. “Bill said to him. “Let’s get out of here.”
They left the puzzled gang in the back and went outside to the rental car. Once in the night air, Dan turned to Bill. “You hit that guy.”
“Yeah, I did. I didn’t know I could do that either. I just gave it a shot, and it worked. Cool, huh?” Bill said excitedly, as he started bobbing and weaving on the sidewalk adopting a boxer’s stance.
Once in the car, Dan finally got a chance to ask Bill that question that had been troubling him since shortly after the guy claiming to be Muhammad showed up. “So …” He began. “A pass? You have special permission? What are you not telling me?”
“Slow down.” Bill interrupted. “I just made that up. I don’t have any special permission or a hall pass. Are you kidding me? A pass? I can’t believe he bought that.”
Dan laughed, a good guttural, cleansing laugh. It felt good. It released his tensions. “Things sure are getting weirder. But I’m feeling good.”
Dan drove back to his grandmother’s house a different route than the way the came. He took 422 over to Lancaster Avenue and got off there at the Queen City Diner where they began their journey on Monday, five days before. A lot had happened in that time, but it was almost over, Dan thought. Bill was quiet, which left Dan to reflect on the week. Get some sleep tonight, go out with a bang tomorrow, and then get the hell out of here. That was the plan.
He was still thinking those same thoughts, when he drove up the small sloping driveway at Chulkie’s house. He was jarred back into the present when he found the same Honda he’d seen leaving the viewing as they arrived was parked in the driveway.
“Isn’t that the car we saw at the funeral home?” Bill asked.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is.” He replied. “At least now maybe I can solve one mystery. I wanted to know who was in that car, so now maybe I’ll get my wish.
He left the car in the driveway, too, and walked up the stone staircase into the back yard. There, standing on the porch looking down at him, was Trixie.