Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.
- Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620)
After the spectacular sunrise, Dan went back in the house to wake up John and Bill. He put a pot of coffee on, and turned on the television.
Saturday morning cartoons were on, and Dan tried to find the best one on, like he’d done a thousand times before every Saturday morning at his grandmother’s house as a child. Of course, today most cartoons sucked and were often merely infomercials to sell the merchandise tie-ins.
In Dan’s day, Jonny Quest was king. He and his cousin always made time for that one. But there were many other favorites over the years, like Rocky & Bullwinkle, the Impossibles, the Lone Ranger, and George of the Jungle. Then there was Hoppity Hooper, Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel, The Beatles cartoon, Cool McCool, The Pink Panther, Quick Draw McGraw, Space Ghost, the Star Trek cartoon, Touche Turtle, Top Cat and Wally Gator. And while after school TV was ruled by Sally Starr, Wee Willie Webber, and burgeoning Japanese animation, Saturday morning was owned by Hanna-Barbera, MGM and Warner brothers.
Then there were the local shows, particularly Gene London. Originally it was called Cartoon Corners, but the name that Dan associated with it was the Gene London Show. That show was shot in Philadelphia. It featured a guy who worked at a corner store and every day a box of confetti fell to the ground and he’d spend the entire day sweeping it up again, like some modern day janitorial Sisyphus. In between they’d show cartoons or Gene himself would get embroiled in some adventure in the store owner’s home, Quigley Mansion. Occasionally Gene would sit at a large tablet and quickly sketch out a story. As a child, it seemed like magic and he was devastated when he’d later learned that all Gene London did was trace the pictures that had been prepared before the show in light pencil.
A lot of childhood was like that. Magical at first but gradually you learned the truth. Little by little the onion of life was peeled away to reveal an ever-increasingly stark picture of what the world was really like. From the tooth fairy to Santa Claus to Jesus, the uncovered myths went by year after year until one day — who knows exactly when — you finally realize your childhood was one big lie. It’s a wonder kids ever believe anything their parents — or indeed any adults — have to say. The amount of ‘white lies’ that are routinely heaped on children is truly staggering. They range from the benign like the Easter bunny or stepping on sidewalks cracks causing back pain to your mother to the downright abusive like religion, fabricated history lessons that omit unpleasant facts, and harsh obedience training. That many of these lies are justified by the slimmest of reasoning is doubly problematic.
In Dan’s experience, children can handle far more that adults are able to give them credit for, in part because they are such tabula rasase. They have no pre-conceived notions that impair them from coping. Their lack of experience is in fact an asset that allows adaptability to degrees many adults find impossible for themselves. So our coddling of children based on them not having the ability to handle things is nothing more than the adult’s inability to either handle it or handle telling the truth about it. To understand how far we’ve come in our pandering to children, just read some of the original Grimm’s fairy tales and their brutal realism. Now compare them to the latest Disney movie or hit kid’s TV show.
Dan remembered his childhood and how he thought as a child with uncanny precision. He had not forgotten how it felt to be helpless and unable to control your actions or decisions. He refused to forget, because he thought it would weaken his resolve to act differently as an adult as the adults around him as a child. But he couldn’t help noticing that when he observed people interacting with children that so many of them appeared to have completely forgotten what it was like to actually be a kid. Perhaps that was hard-wired in the brain or was a necessary part of maturing process. Whatever the reasons, it didn’t seem good for the children.
Dan couldn’t find anything remotely decent on television, so he switched it off and headed to the back bedroom. John was still snoring loudly when Dan walked in. He shook John gently than increasingly harder until at last he started to stir. “Time to get up,, man.”
John rubbed his eyes and rolled over slowly. “What time is it?” He said softly and slowly, as if he was having a rough time of it.
“I don’t know.” Dan admitted. “Probably around seven, I guess. The sun came up about half an hour ago.”
“Seven in the morning?” John bolted up. “Fuck. I’ve got to get home before Amanda fries my bacon.”
“Fries your bacon?” Dan repeated, confused.
“It’s just an expression we use.” John explained. “It means she’ll be pissed at me.”
“Ah.” Dan said, a little sarcastically. “Of course.”
John was up and straightening his clothes and putting on his shoes. “So did I dream what happened last night or did that actually happen?” He asked, as the memory of the previous night returned.
“It was real.” Dan told him.
“And Bill?” Weaver wondered.
“Asleep on the couch, though I’m not sure if you’ll still be able to see him now that you’ve come down. And before you take off, we should probably talk about that.”
John walked into the bathroom and began to take a leak. “Good idea.” He called.
Dan continued from the hall. “I think it would probably be best if we keep this to ourselves. Completely. I’d rather nobody else finds out about this. I have enough trouble with being thought of as eccentric, I don’t need to add crazy to my list of adjectives.”
“No problem, buddy. Mum is definitely the word.” John agreed. “It’s not like anyone would believe me anyway. And you’re right. Everybody would just think we’d lost our minds. I don’t need that, either.”
The flush covered his last words, but Dan knew they had agreed on a strategy of silence. When John came out of the bathroom, they walked the hallway back to the living room. Bill was up, but with his head in his hands, looked like he’d had a rough one, too. He looked up when he heard the footsteps coming up the hall come to a stop as they entered the room.
“Damn.” John muttered. “I can still see him.”
“Well good morning to you, too.” Bill chided. “You know I can hear you?”
“Sorry.” John apologized, sounding confused.
“Don’t worry about it.” Bill replied. “Dan here acted the same way the day after I first appeared to him, too. I imagine I would have done it myself.” He stood and walked toward the kitchen. “You start the coffee?”
“Yeah, should be done by now.” Dan said.
“Oh, brilliant.” John shouted, joining Bill in a race to the kitchen.
By the time Dan arrived, trailing behind, they both had cups of coffee in hand and were sitting at the table. Dan refilled his cup and joined them. The three of them moaned silently with the effects of last night’s drinking.
“So how long ‘till you have to be fully functioning?” John asked.
“Let’s see. A little over four hours.” Dan guessed. “Piece of cake.”
“Did you sleep at all?” Bill wondered.
“Nope.” Dan admitted. “Not a wink.”
“You’re going to be hating life tonight.” John told him.
“Not as much as I’m hating it now.” Dan responded, holding his head. “I need some Tylenol or Advil or something.”
“Well good luck with that.” John offered, getting up to leave.
“Fuck you, this is your fault.” Dan moaned.
Bill and John both laughed.
“I gotta motor.” John said, heading for the door. “I’ll see you and your hallucination in a few hours. Later.”
“Hey!” Bill yelled, but it was too late. The storm door slammed shut and he was gone.
“I liked him, too.” Bill told Dan. “Everybody here gives you a hard time.”
“Yeah, we’ve known each other so long that we can get away with shit like that and not be ‘offended.’” Dan made the quote-unquote sign in the air with his hands. “I can’t really do that with most of my more recent friends.”
“You don’t have any trouble giving me a hard time.” Bill said. “What’s up with that?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just feel comfortable with you, Bill. Plus, you’re dead so what are you going to about it if I offend you?”
“I can do plenty.” Bill said, and demonstrated by smacking him on the back of the head.”
“Ouch.” Dan cried. “A little consideration, here, please. I’ve got a massive hangover.”
“Sorry.” Bill said sarcastically, smacking him lightly on the back. “That better?”
“Much.” Dan said mockingly, standing up. “I’m going in the living room where the chairs are more comfortable.”
“Good idea, Dan.” Bill said, joining him.
They passed the next couple of hours moving as little as possible, except when it was absolutely necessary: to piss, to refill coffee or to get out the way of the sunlight streaming into the room that kept moving across the room as it rose higher in the sky outside. A few people called during that time, so Dan brought the phone over to the sofa so it was within reach and he wouldn’t have to keep getting up to answer it. Mostly, some friends were checking in who found out about the party and wanted to confirm details like time or whether or not they were invited.
Finally, a little before ten, Dan decided he needed to take a shower and start getting ready. He dragged himself down the hall and took a long, hot shower. By the time he was finished, he was feeling more like his old self and the effects of the hangover were virtually gone. He put on the Boscov’s blue suit again with a new shirt and tie.
We he emerged from the back, Dan was surprised to discover it had not taken him very long to get ready and it was only a few minutes after ten, meaning there were still almost two hours until the funeral.
Bill was still lounging on the sofa but also appeared more himself. “You want to go for a last walk?” Dan asked.
“Sure.” Bill answered. “Why not.” And stood up, stretching.
They left through the kitchen door, and Dan locked the door, dropping the key into his coat pocket. The cemetery was just a short walk west of the house, so he decided on a looping walk that would take them around the majority of town. This was probably the last chance he would have to see his hometown this trip, and he was unsure whether or not he’d ever have a reason to return. So it was with the thought that this might be the last time he’d see much of childhood haunts that he steered them away from the cemetery and down Fourth Street toward the Memorial Park where they went the day he arrived.
Walking was really the way to see a place, Dan thought. That was one of California’s biggest failings. It had an automobile-based geography, because most of its growth and expansion came after the car became the primary mode of transportation. So whole towns were laid out in deference to the automobile. They were spread out, sprawling areas that lacked a center, a hub. There was no utilitarian Jeffersonian town planning. They were laid out without any thought beyond where was the open space. Since any place could be reached by car, where it was located began to take on less importance and required less planning. It might have made growth more rapid, but the loss of neighborhoods was devastating. Only a few places in California towns were conducive to walking, and most of them had to be driven to in the first pace, defeating the purpose. There were plenty of wonderful places to go for a hike in nature, but not in the city. Those were for cars in the minds of most Californians.
One irony about this was that the opposite happened in Europe, an arguably more civilized place in many ways. In most European cities, the wealthy stayed centrally located in the urban areas, while the poor ringed the cities in ramshackle suburbs. Of course, Europe had a comparatively excellent mass transit system and universal health care.
Dan never caught the car bug that he felt infected so many people. Cars were tools, transportation, in his mind. Nothing more. He definitely didn’t think of them as an extension of his personality. But the amount of money, time and energy people lavished on their cars he felt was positively obscene and a complete waste of those resources. That so many people felt so strongly about something that was essentially a large toaster convinced Dan that his society’s priorities were completely out of whack.
Dan’s grandfather, his mother’s father, was an auto mechanic and bought a new car every year from the time Dan was little. He stopped eventually, but Dan really couldn’t even remember when. Probably once he retired. But every year, he’d trade in last year’s model for a new one. Even as a child, it seemed foolish. That small changes were made to each year’s models was, in and of itself, a sign that people were fickle and had been completely won over to the capitalist propaganda system. Rick, who’d also been a mechanic, could identify almost any car from it’s little differences, a skill he took no small delight in demonstrating. It was remarkable, to be sure, but certainly that memory could have been used to remember something infinitely more important or universal, like perhaps hitting people was bad.
As Dan and Bill walked down Broad Street, he pointed out who used to live at each house they passed. Who were friends, who were enemies, or who were inscrutably unknown. Where something had happened, like places he’d had sex, or had been drinking or a party had been held. There were few places where Dan looked that did not hold some story, no matter how small. It was like walking a life size map of your life. Every blade of grass, or so it seemed, had locked within it some memory of Dan having tread upon it.
After a week of these walks, Bill had started to recognize some of the more familiar spots, so Dan tried to confine his narration to new information. And as the days rolled by, he found his memories increasing and he kept finding fresh sights to remember, and old sights spurred more and more of his memory to return. Long forgotten experiences were jarred into the present by a simple return to the scene of it. In this one square mile, there were more memories than the rest of the world outside. It was pure concentrated hell.
They passed the old toboggan run that had been such great winter fun, the man-made skating pond where he threw up in the snow, and the open picnic lodge where he and Trixie met the last time he saw her. She had wanted to meet there because it was public and open. Dan just thought at the time that she was being melodramatic. A couple of people were there now, sitting and talking; perhaps another couple in the throes of disintegrating.
When Dan looked through the chain link fence surrounding the empty swimming pool, he could see and hear the pool during the dog days of summer, a bright sun warming the air. The sounds of laughter and people talking and water splashing were thick in his ears. People in various stages of undress dotted the sloping hills around the pool. He remembered particularly the string bikinis that had so commanded his hormone-addled attention. How many crushes had he developed here only to be dashed moments later?
Down the hill, there were now buildings where the old tennis courts used to be. How many times had he John played tennis there? It was where he was when his great-grandmother passed away. Then there was the time they were playing and out of the corner of their vision, they watched two planes collide over a nearby forest. Both John and Dan had been Boy Scouts, so they went to offer their help and so found themselves one odd summer day combing the woods for bodies and pieces of airplanes. They didn’t find anything but they did happen upon one of the bodies being carried to an ambulance. The two adolescents watched in horror at the person’s intestines uncoiled and fell off the gurney. One of the paramedics picked them up and shoved back into the man’s chest cavity. Dan lost his lunch in the woods that day, and John came close.
The two grey stone pillars at the bottom of the hill marking the entrance to Memorial Park were left intact. They were one of few reminders of the early, more genteel days of Shillington. Beyond them was Philadelphia Avenue, or Route 724. A few hundred yards along which was the Hassler Home, where Chulkie was living until last week, when she passed away in her sleep.
Turning right again on Waverly, they passed the Immanuel U.C.C. Church where Tom Stauffer’s funeral was held. He was a star football player. Dan knew him because he was dating a good friend of his, Lois Hornberger. They were in band together, and she was also his neighbor Skip Siegelman’s cousin. Anyway, she and Tom had been dating for a while and had spent Christmas Eve at the Siegelman’s place, which was out in the country. On the drive home his car slid on a patch of ice into trees lining the road, killing him instantly.
“Fuck!” Dan yelled under his breath, as they passed the church.
“What’s wrong?” Bill asked.
“No wonder this place is getting to me. Everywhere I look there’s another death staring me in the face.” Dan whined. “I can’t escape them. I shudder to think how many deaths per square mile are in this place. It’s got to be in triple digits, for chrissakes. And why am I here again? Because someone I care about died. I’m starting to think it’s this place. Maybe all I have to do it stay away from here and no one will ever die again.”
“You weren’t here when you grandmother died.” Bill countered.
“So what. She was here.” Dan continued angrily, then sighed, defeated. “No, you’re right. It’s not really this place. It just feels like it sometimes. It’s like that stupid statistical fact insurance companies spout; that most accidents happen within some small distance from your home. But so what? What does that really mean. Does it mean you should stay away from your home? Does it mean you’re not driving carefully enough as you near your destination? No, of course not. It’s just a reflection of how much time is spent in a small radius of your home. That’s it. If you have to leave from a fixed point and return to a fixed point day in and day out, a pretty healthy percentage of your driving time will be within that fixed radius. So it’s no surprise more accidents happen where you spend most of your driving time. It just sounds like it means something profound. But it doesn’t. Like most insurance information, it’s all useless propaganda to steal even more of your money. There are few motherfuckers I hate more than insurance companies. Those people give marketing a run for its money.”
“But I guess it’s the same with where you’re from. You spend so much of your time, especially your childhood time, in one place that you’re bound to have most, if not all, of your early memories of that place, too. It will be inevitably intertwined with the people and events, an integral part, really.”
“Take the school, for example.” Dan began as they walked past the high school on his right and the middle school — which was the old junior high — on their left. “From age five to eighteen, you spend about one-third of your life in school, not counting the summer, or half your waking life, if you discount sleeping. So you’d expect half your memories from that period of your life to involve school. It would be exception if that weren’t the case.”
“I know I’ve talked about this before, but you know how I was saying your world expands as you grow? From your backyard to your block to the neighborhood and so on?”
“Well that’s true of your memories, as well.” Dan continued. “They follow the same pattern, of course. So my adult memories have likewise increased in their scope after I moved and started traveling.”
“So it’s back to your ‘move or die’ diatribe?” Bill chided.
“Yeah, I suppose.” Dan admitted. “It does seem self-limiting to stay in one place your whole life when there’s a big world waiting to be explored.”
“But what about people like Trixie?” Bill contradicted. “Doesn’t she shoot holes in your theory? She’s not ignorant or stupid in any way yet she very much wants to stay put in one place. She sees the value in putting down roots.”
“Whose side are you on?” Dan asked, half jokingly.
“Hers.” Bill laughed. “She’s better looking.”
“It always comes down to appearance, doesn’t it?” Dan laughed sarcastically.
“Seriously, though.” Bill’s tone became more sober. “She seems pretty well adjusted, all things considered. She knows what she wants and she definitely knows who she is. I think you’re not so much discovering universal truths as figuring out yourself. It’s what everybody does. Do you think it’s a coincidence that people’s visions are almost always in their own language and are always interpreted in the context of their own belief systems?”
“Take UFO sightings. They didn’t really start until the atomic age. The first ones were in 1947. Before that the same phenomena was almost certainly interpreted as something else, as a religious experience, for example. Ezekiel described in the bible what sounds eerily like a UFO sighting, but they couldn’t conceive of that. But they could interpret it as a divine sign or the work of god. It’s about what you’re capable of imagining. It has to fit into the context of your own life and experiences.”
“You imagine it’s having moved away from here that’s made all the difference in your life, and so you believe that’s what everyone must do, too. In fact, you believe these people are bumpkins because they remained here and didn’t do what you did. Okay, maybe some of the people who live here aren’t the most sophisticated folks god ever created, but how do you explain Trixie? Or Adam? Or any other person who’s at least as well adjusted as you are yet chose not to follow your master plan for happiness? My brother Steve went off to college but right afterwards, he did all the ‘normal’ things he was supposed to do; he got a job, got married and had kids. Was he less happy than I was? Not by a long shot. If anything, I was the one who lost out on having it all. I didn’t realize that until I knew I was dying. I thought staying in one place was death, but it wasn’t anything of the sort. It’s what’s inside that really matters. What you do with what you have, or where you are. You can’t keep wishing for somewhere or something different as the cure that will make everything all right.”
“Well, somebody’s cranky.” Dan interjected, laughing awkwardly.
“Look, Dan.” Bill sighed. “I’m being serious here. I’ve been listening to your proselytize all week, and you made some very good points. I honestly agree with a lot you have to say, but I’m beginning to question some of the conclusions that you’re drawing. That’s all. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. You found out how to turn your own life around and I know it wasn’t easy. You made sacrifices, you lost people you care about, you left everything you held dear in exchange for a freedom you only dreamt about. You had no idea the cost it would exact. How could you know? But you’re doing what everybody does. You’re rationalizing. You’re taking that experience and judging everybody else against it. But everybody has to make their own decisions. You can’t rail against religion and government and society for taking away people’s choices and free will if you’re doing exactly the same thing. Do you see what I mean? You’re not L. Ron Hubbard. You don’t really want people to follow you. Trust me on this one.”
“Look what happened to David Koresh. That one’s a pet peeve of mine. David Koresh thought he was Jesus. His real name was Vernon. Can’t imagine why we wanted to change it.” Bill chuckled to himself. “Okay, let’s let that one go for a second. He found a number of other people who also thought he was Jesus. To me, they’re the nutty ones. There are mental hospitals full of people who think they’re Napoleon or Cleopatra or whomever. The real trick is getting others to go along with you. So he got a bunch of ‘believers’ and bought some land and started businesses and for the most part, they really didn’t seem to be hurting anyone. But there were rumors about rampant sex and children in some unspecified peril. Oh, and their business involved selling guns. We can’t have religious nuts and guns under the same roof, now can we? Who started these rumors? I’ve never seen that investigated, but those yahoos have blood on their hands, as far as I’m concerned. Of course you know what happened next. Rather than find out if the rumors might have even a grain of truth to them, the FBI just fucking annihilates the place. They were cleared of any responsibility, big surprise, but I’ve never seen such a show of totalitarianism in the so-called land of the free. I was down there during the standoff and it was a fucking joke, I can tell you.”
“My point is only that you’re going about this in the wrong way. You don’t want everybody to think and act the way you do anymore than you want people to lockstep with a religion or a political ideal that they didn’t think about for themselves. If people ask you for your advice, the best you can do is tell them what worked for you. You can’t even expect that they’ll follow your advice. They might just be looking for a sounding board, someone to listen to. You know what I mean?”
“Wow” was all Dan could manage. “I guess I had that coming to me. Let’s go down State one more time.”
They crossed Lancaster Avenue and walked down the leaf-strewn street Dan had grown up on. Most of the trees had very few leaves left on their wooden skeletons. There was a sharp chill in the air as the wind whipped the dead leaves into a colorful swirl of debris, as if they were walking through a festive ticker tape parade. The morning sun was just beginning to warm their skin, but it was still quite cold. Dan and Bill walked silently for a block or two, their breath visible in the morning air. Dan was deep in thought about Bill’s reproach.
Bill broke the silence. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Dan replied. “I’m fine, I’ve just been thinking about what you said. I got wrapped up in my own problems, like you said, and ignored the bigger picture. Are we all this selfish, or is just me?”
“It’s not just you, believe me.” Bill told him. “I was about as selfish as they come. I thought about only myself. My career came first. I wanted the love of a good woman who would support me unconditionally, but that was almost impossible with my schedule. So I sacrificed that ideal for my career. Of course, once I started smoking, drinking, taking drugs my self-destructive behavior helped that along, but I couldn’t sustain a relationship even before that period of my life. So yeah, I think we’re all pretty much selfish creatures. Certainly we’ve created a society that rewards self-interest above almost anything else. We don’t really value things that can’t have a dollar amount put on them. We pretend we do, but our actions say otherwise, and that’s where it counts.”
“I agree.” Dan jumped in. “Corporate greed is shown as a model to be emulated. Newspapers report on box office numbers as if the general public had a stake in them. Who really cares how the latest movie did? And star’s salary negotiations are fodder for the news hour, too. You see news stories asking questions in all seriousness about whether or not so and so is worth two million dollars per show or some other bullshit. How the fuck is that news? Why the fuck is that news? Anytime you watch a football game, the discussion turns to how much a star athlete is being paid or wants to be paid or is pissed off because he’s not being paid. Everything is talked about in terms of its cash value, its worth in monetary terms. If that’s the only place you get your news, would you even know that there are other ways to determine value? It bodes damn poorly for the future.”
They reached the corner of Reading Avenue, Dan’s first boundary. This was as far as the world extended for him until he was six, when he was finally allowed to cross the street on his own, doubling his worldview at a stroke. His parents didn’t have too much choice in the matter. They lived too close to the elementary school for a bus to take him to school, so Dan had to walk the five blocks each day to class.
Dan looked down and smiled, shuffling his feet slightly to the center of the corner. Then he punched Bill hard on the shoulder.
“Hey!” Bill yelled. “What was that for?”
“Punching block.” Dan called.
“What?” Bill looked confused.
Dan pointed at his feet. “You see that small square?” In the center of the corner sidewalk block of concrete was a square that was a different color than the rest and also looked to be made of different stone. It was about four or five inches square. “That’s a punching block. As long as my foot is touching it, I can hit anyone with impunity who’s within my reach.”
“Are you kidding me?” Bill said.
“No. That was the rule. That was a game we played on the way to school every day. I have no idea who made up the rules, but I suspect they’d been around for ages handed down from older to younger kids.”
“You played some twisted games.” Bill told him.
“They weren’t that bad.” Dan defended. “I’m sure you had your own immature little games when you were little.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. But I don’t remember hitting people.” Bill said, rubbing his shoulder.
“That would surprise me.” Dan offered. “Kids are cruel as shit. Especially once they hit school age and have to compete with their peer group. They’re animals, literally. They act on instinct, not reason or enlightenment. When I was in junior high, a popular form of combat was something we called muckers. I can’t remember where the word came from, all I know is I think we combined two other words. Anyway, you would put a spitball on your finger and then snap your thumb across it, flinging the spitball across the room. You could get some pretty good distance that way and it was surprisingly easy to aim so with practice you could hit a target most of the time. Well, are target were each other and anyone we perceived deserving, which meant mostly the shy, nerdy, unpopular kids. I don’t know how long it went on, close to a year maybe. It was during the brutal ninth grade. I remember some kid we were pissed at for some reason in chorus. When the teacher turned around, we all threw muckers at this boy. I mean we basically just spit all over him. I can’t imagine a crueler fate. He must have cried himself to sleep that night. We were animals. In retrospect, we were horrible. Yet, we were just normal kids. The two go hand in hand.”
“We only gradually become civilized as we’re indoctrinated into society. And what’s meant by civilized is different in time and place. It changes. We train kids to act how we want them to behave in order to function in society today. I think that’s why it’s always so hard to change people’s fundamental behaviors. Take racism, for example. Even though almost every thinking person can admit racism is undesirable in today’s society, it still persists, especially in the United States. Why? It’s because so many people inadvertently pass on their racism to their kids. Sometimes it’s malicious, I know. The Klan is alive and well. I don’t think we’ll be able to eradicate assholes any time soon. But more often I think parents don’t necessarily mean to do that, but it happens anyway because they can’t overcome the way in which they were raised. The earlier we learn a lesson, especially a bad lesson, the longer it takes to un-learn it, I think. The only way real social change happens is when generations die out who thought a certain way and are replaced by new ones with a different view.”
They crossed the street, but when the reached the sidewalk on the other side, Bill was on the lookout for a punching block. He found it and took a swing at Dan, but Dan had known where it was and walked out of range where Bill’s punch couldn’t reach him.
“Ha.” Dan laughed as Bill’s arm hit only air.
“You fucker.” Bill exclaimed.
“Sorry, dude.” Dan replied. “You’re on my turf now.”
They walked up to the front of Dan’s old house and stopped. Dan took a last look up the cement steps to the front porch. His eyes swept up to the roof and down again. He turned to Bill. “You know I once tried to jump out of that attic window.” He said, pointing up at the gabled window just below the top of the house.
“What happened? You chicken out?” Bill asked.
“No, I was prepared to do it. I think I was around seven or eight. I had an umbrella with me. I was going to float down, using the umbrella like a parachute. Damn neighbors saw me climb out onto the roof with the umbrella and figured it out. They called my parents who rushed in to stop me and talk me down. I still think I could of made it.” He laughed. “Hell, when I was older, I used to jump down from the porch outside my room on the second floor, and I didn’t even use the umbrella. That was my escape route, my back door out of the house. I always felt a little better knowing I had another way out.”
Dan turned around, surveying the block in a 360-degree arc. It was easier to see everything now, because there were fewer trees. At one time, he knew everybody who lived in every house on this block. His first kiss was the girl across the street when he was six. He’d had a crush on the little red-haired who lived three doors down from his own. When he finally told her, she’d laughed and ran back into her house. It had not gone exactly as he’d hoped.
“C’mon. Let’s keep moving.” Dan said, and resumed walking down the block again. They turned again up Pennsylvania Avenue. Dan was retracing the steps he took everyday on his walk to elementary school. When they’d gone about a block, he pointed to the sidewalk.
“You see that spot?” Dan asked.
Not seeing anything but another concrete sidewalk block, Bill answered slowly and tentatively. “Yeah.”
“One day I’m coming home from school, so I’m walking in the opposite direction.” Dan says, pointing back the way they’d just come. I was in second grade. On this spot on the sidewalk, someone had scrawled in chalk the letters f-u-k.”
“F-u-k?” Bill repeated.
“Yeah, fuck.” Dan said. “Whoever wrote it wasn’t a very good speller. Anyway, I didn’t know the word at the time. It’s hard to believe there was a time when we didn’t know the word fuck, isn’t it? That night we were having supper and I thought to myself, ‘maybe my mom knows what f-u-k means.’ So I just asked, very matter-of-factly, since I had no idea it was word with so much negative baggage attached to it. I’m sitting at the dinner table and I just say to my parents. ‘What’s fuck?’ You could have heard a pin drop. But my mother shifted into nurse mode and within the week she had bought a sex education textbook, complete with the teacher’s edition for her. For the next six months, I had to read about birds, bees, eggs and once we got into the later chapters; vaginas, penises and human sex. I may have been the only second grader to know what a clitoris was. I may not have had any better luck finding it than the average male, but at least I knew what it was. It made me very popular for other kid’s questions about sex, at least for a little while.”
Where Pennsylvania ended and after a slight turn the road picked up again as North Sterley at the corner of Elsie. It was a strange asymmetrical intersection. On one corner there was a house that used to be a neighborhood grocery, but now it was just another house. A block on there was an old textile factory. At six stories, it was the tallest building in sight by a wide margin. Every other building was two-story house. Dan couldn’t tell if the factory was still in business or not. It was hard to tell on a Saturday morning. When he was a kid you could see large, colorful spools of yarn and big machines that looked like looms though the windows. But now the windows only reflected the light and were like mirrors.
One of the houses along Sterley past the factory on opposite side of the street, had been where Sue Merkel. Dan told Bill her sad story. “She had been the director of Shillington Summer Theatre for a number of years. The theater was in her blood. She went to New York to make in on Broadway. A few months go by, and there are rumors that she’d moved back home. She never said a word about what happened. She went to work for Hickory Farms and became a manager of one of them. I ran into her there a few years later. She was a different person. She took all her acting ability and used it to sell cheese. It was so sad. Maybe she ended up happy — I don’t know — but it seemed like she had such high aspirations and something just crushed her dreams. Whatever happened in New York defined the rest of her life. She had to know the exact moment when her fortune changed, when she lost all hope. That could have been me. I was lucky. That’s all that separates us.”
Dan pointed out the spot where the bully stole his flags and then they approached the main drag, Lancaster Avenue, where the old chief of police doubled as a crossing guard and the stone wall on the other side where Dan would wait with Mac.
The old elementary school still had “Shillington Elementary School” carved into the top of the building. It was a strange sight to see the two-story brick building sitting in the middle of a macadam parking lot, which at one time had been the playground. Around the back was the Dolphin swimwear factory and the old firehouse. Dan used to go bowling in the firehouse basement but in a fit of irony it burned down when he was in junior high. Along Lancaster Avenue was the community center, where many clubs and groups held meetings. Today it appeared to have been taken over by religious fanaticism, like much of the country. The old Siegers variety store was now a convenience store with something on the order of one-tenth the stock the old store carried. The rug cleaner and jewelry stores were rare holdovers from Dan’s era at the end of the block. Opposite the jewelry store was the barbershop. Across the street from that was a restaurant. The building had always been a restaurant but seemed to change names every few years. Across the street again was Flanagan’s Pub, whose name had only changed once; right after Ron Kemp stabbed the wrong person coming out of the bar.
They were only one block from the funeral home and Dan’s eyes kept darting around like a condemned man, as if looking for a way to escape. There was a brick house in the middle of the block that used to be a hobby shop. Then it was open until almost the end of the block, where the bank stood. In between was grass and parking lot. The other side of the block was all row homes with a sandwich shop in the middle in a basement walk-down. On the end was where Ibach’s Pharmacy had been. As they closed in on the bank, the town hall came into view across the five-way intersection. This was the dead center of town. From here all five roads radiated out. You could see a lot of the town from this spot. It must have been quite a sight when it was all shiny and new, Dan thought. But the promise that the Fifties and Sixties held had long since left. So there was very little growth or new building in town. It gave the place a odd feeling, like being back in time but with seemingly anachronistic touches here and there. Most of the buildings looked their age. They weren’t dilapidated or falling apart and for the most part there was evidence of upkeep. Everything just looked run down or used up. There was no shine, no gloss. All was dull and drab.
Dan crossed the street slowly and walked to the entrance of the funeral home. A very tall giant of a man was at the entrance. He stopped Dan abruptly as he reached for the door.
“Sorry, you can’t come in this way. There’s a private funeral today. The employee entrance is around the side.” The giant said.
“Is Ron here yet?” Dan asked.
“Doesn’t matter. He’ll tell you the same thing. That’s just procedure.” The giant told him.
Dan held his tongue and explained. “I don’t think you understand. I don’t work here. I’m here for my grandmother’s funeral. The Schaeffer funeral.”
He stiffened. “Oh. Sorry. I thought you were one of the new people. I’m Rod.” He said, extending a hand.
Dan shook his hand. “Uh, that’s okay. I’m Dan. Dan Pilger. Don’t worry about it. I’m a little early. Can I go in?”
“Yeah. I mean yes, of course.” Rod became more polite. “Mr. Bachman is inside. It’s the same room where the viewing was last night.”
Dan and Bill went inside. When the door shut behind them, Dan leaned over and whispered to Bill. “More like Nimrod.”