I drove north on route 309, through towns that don’t matter, each with a gas station and a bar. The hills rose up, and around them dark forest, and my headlights illuminating less and less through the thickness of night. There is an eeriness about northern Pennsylvania. It’s like once you cross the mountains, there’s this looming presentiment that people don’t really belong here. There really isn’t much to suggest otherwise; old farmhouses with English ivy growing over the roof… shutters unhinged… cracked fading white paint…. A dense, lingering fog and beyond it a sea of dense undergrowth. It’s been this way since the coal and timber played out.
Near Hometown I stopped at the Beacon Diner, a non-distinct eatery that already had Christmas lights up in early November. I got seated near the back and the waitress brought me coffee. She was an old woman, and as plain as the place where she worked.
I was surprised to see the place so full of people on a Friday night. There were entire families sitting down to dinner; broad men with stubbled faces and tucked in flannels, submissive housewives tending to misbehaving children. But, it seemed I came in at the tail end, as more and more of them finished and left. It was quiet before Lindsey even showed up.
Lindsey and I had met in Vermont. She had lived in Burlington, down near where the Winooski River barreled over a man-made waterfall into Lake Champlain. I had been working in the woods, and would go to Burlington at the end of the week to get drunk. I was drunk when I met her, and she thought, somehow, that that was charming. We would cross the bridge into Winooski and drink at Misery Loves Company, and I would stay with her until I had to return to the woods. I was surprised to find out she was from Pennsylvania too… from an hour north of where I grew up.
When I left Vermont she took it hard. She felt that we had had something; wished I would find a way to stay. But, there were no jobs in the winter, and I left. By the time she called me, months later, I had forgotten; I had moved on. She told me she would be in Pennsylvania to visit her parents. I felt, with so much time past, it would be good to see her… as old friends….
When she entered the diner, I saw her look around and, not seeing me, she nearly got another table. Finally I waved, and after a moment of looking blankly in my direction, I could see that she recognized me. She hurried over, she was flustered… this was her normal state.
“I’m sorry I’m so late,” she said.
“I don’ mind, I’ve been people watching.”
“People watching?,” she asked, her face turning quizzical.
“Yea, you know, there are such interesting people here. Rural folk,” I said.
“Oh yea,” she drawled, “this is nothing. There are some real critters in my town.”
I didn’t doubt it. Much of Pennsylvania is made up of a cultural void… people who’d rather eat grits from a Waffle House than visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a conscious preference. Like giving up the Dixie Chicks when they said, “Fuck Bush.”
Living in the area for so many years, I’ve always felt apart from these people. I used to think they were good people, just living differently from me. That belief has been challenged too many times now. These were not my people, I would never belong here… I was not their people either, and on occasion they let me know it.
“How was the drive down from Vermont,” I asked, trying to find something to talk about… something harmless.
“It felt longer than I remembered. But not bad, no traffic.”
“I wouldn’t imagine,” I said. “What do you take? 87?”
“No… no, that would put me too far east. I cut across New York and down through Scranton.”
“Ah, yes, Scranton…. That area’s always seemed pretty off to me.”
“Yea, it definitely is. I mean, when you stop in a graveyard in those towns, all the last names are the same. Explains a lot,” she said.
“I remember, when I was living in Philly… I was at a party and this guy from Wilkes Barre came in. He was already pretty drunk. Not like party drunk, but like we should all keep an eye on this guy drunk. He was yelling at everyone, ‘Wilkes Barre Represent!’ and throwing up the west-side hand sign. I mean, it was all a bunch of white kids, but still, it was Philly…. It seemed pretty ill-advised. Everyone was relieved when he passed out behind the couch in the living room, until it became clear he pissed himself. I recall someone rolling him up in a carpet and putting him out in the backyard, where he slept the sleep of the innocent.”
“You put him outside?” She was laughing, but still seemed disturbed by my indifference.
“I mean, I didn’t… but I didn’t do anything about it either. I guess because he was so obnoxious. I figured it was, somehow, natural consequences.”
“Wow, I mean, throwing up gang-signs at a white kid party is pretty lame,” she made a tough guy face and made a ‘W’ with her hand. I gave a half laugh, trying to think of something else to say.
“I brought you something,” she said and smiled. “I figured you don’t get the real stuff down here….”
“Well, then it’s got to be beer or maple syrup,” I said, feeling embarrassed by the gesture.
She reached into her oversized bag and pulled out a half-gallon of “Vermont Fancy Grade” maple syrup.
“Thank you,” I said, “you really didn’t have to.”
“I know, but I know how much you love the stuff. When you were there you practically lived off that and beer. I thought about bringing you both, but I figure you needed this more.”
“It’s amazing I managed to live through the last year without contracting diabetes.”
I stirred the remainder of my coffee nervously. The plain waitress came around and filled my cup, but I could tell they were trying to close the place for the night. She asked in a suggestive tone if we needed anything else, while the busboys scrambled back and forth collecting dishes and wiping down tables. Lindsey became awkward and silent as we waited for our checks.
“Do you want to get a beer somewhere?” she asked, sheepishly. I could tell that, what meaningless conversation we had managed to have at this diner was not satisfying. I could tell she had something important she wanted to say.
We closed out our bills, and I followed her into Hazelton. It seemed all the bars were already closed, but we finally found one that was open. We parked up the street on a block that was now devoid of buildings, but looked like it had not always been. The bar itself was a strange sort of place. There appeared to be a private lounge in the front, and in the back there was a dancehall blaring Latin music. We must have been two of maybe seven people there, and were clearly out of our element in every way. We sat down and ordered beers, the selection of which ranged from domestic light beers to domestic lagers. There were more choices of liquor, but mostly of the plastic bottle variety. The room was full of mirrors and lit only with red lights.
We tried to talk, but the music was too loud. Even small talk was impossible. We sat ever closer, shouting in each other’s ears.
“How are your housemates?” I asked.
“How are your housemates?”
“Good. They are good.”
“What the fuck is this place?”
“What is what?”
“This fucking place.”
“It’s fucking impossible. Do you ever look back on your life and wonder, how the fuck did I get here?”
“Oh my god yea.”
After a while my voice became hoarse. All the inflection of tone, the subtext that actually informs conversation was lost. But, I enjoyed the complete absurdity of it. I didn’t belong here, I would never be back. It was funny. I started to laugh, maybe more heartily than I should have.
“You have a strange sense of humor,” she yelled.
“I know. I don’t even get it myself. This is all hilarious to me. I can’t tell you how many times in the last year I thought I must have died and gone to hell. This is proof of it. I’ve been trying to pin point the moment. I think it was in the car, with my maniac boss in Vermont. We were driving north on 7, towards Rutland. She crossed the double yellow to pass a slow car. I think she thought it would impress all the young men she had as captives in her car. We were all so tired of her trying to be flirtatious and she was desperate for attention. I closed my eyes when she passed that car, because one of those big, lifted, diesel pick-up trucks… you know, with the Cummings engines… one of those was barreling towards us. She didn’t back down. I closed my eyes and waited to hear that dull and yet sharp smashing sound… that sound that is unique to car wrecks. I waited and it never came. I think that’s the moment I had died.”
Lindsey was laughing, but also had a confused look, like she had caught maybe half of what I said.
“I think I am dead now,” I repeated. “I am dead and this place is hell. That’s why they have all the red lights.”
“You are definitely right about the lights.”
“I want to be witty, like Oscar Wilde. You know, when he was dying, he said ‘Either the wallpaper goes or I do,’ and just died. That’s nothing on Dylan Thomas. His last words were, ‘I’ve had 18 straight whiskies…. I think that’s got to be a record.’ Then he just collapsed on the pavement in New York City, out in front of the White Horse Pub. I’ve been there. I’ve drank there. I wish I had died there. But, that’s not the point…. The point is, you have to imagine him saying the words with his Welsh accent. It makes sense. I’d want to have something like that to say, right now, in case I died. But, as I’m already dead, I’ve missed the chance.”
I took advantage of how loud it was to just say the absurd things I usually kept to myself. The things that nobody really finds funny, but will laugh at if they have to…. I didn’t care, and I knew she could only hear half of it, and would laugh because she was in love with me. But, it made things worse. I was not in love with her. I didn’t want her love. I wanted her to go back to Vermont, and to live happily with somebody that deserved somebody nice.
She tried to be absurd too. To prove, I guess, that she could hang with my own madness…. But, at the end of the day, she was a nice person, not a crazy person. I had no desire in pulling someone else over to my side. There are enough cracked fuckers in the world, let there at least be a few nice ones too. I had seen too much to be nice. I think that’s the difference. The more you see of life, the shittier you become… to yourself, to others. It doesn’t matter.
“This reminds me of Tim and Eric,” she said.
“Who are Tim and Eric?”
“It’s a show. Look at the couple dancing. He just, like, passed out in her arms. She is holding him up. Is she saving face? For us?”
I looked over my shoulder. There was a middle aged couple. He had a pleather jacket on over a flannel and blue jeans. His eyes were closed, and his body appeared to be half-slumped over, resting its weight on the woman’s shoulder. She was heavy-set and wearing a mini skirt. She was rocking him back and forth to the music. The pair looked like something you’d see in a Wal-mart at 1 am.
“Oh she is saving face alright,” I said. “She has been waiting her whole life for the perfect moment to save face.”
For a moment we didn’t speak. I started a starring contest with my beer, wondering when it would start. When there would be serious talk. I imagine I made a rather morose sight, because she tried to put her arm around me. I don’t know if it was an attempt at being romantic or just her way of trying to cheer me up.
“Please don’t,” I said.
She stopped, looking shocked… like I had just stabbed her in the stomach. I could see her eyes welling up, but she tried to control it. She looked ahead. Now we were both morose.
“Look,” I started. “A lot has changed since the summer.”
“I know,” she said submissively.
“I can’t do that now. I mean, you live in Vermont for one,” I tried to reason.
“Let’s just go,” she said. She was right, this was no kind of place to have any kind of serious talk. We settled up and went out into the cold. There was a north wind blowing in our faces and even an occasional flurry fell. It seemed fitting…. The whole town looked like it could fall over. The streets were desolate. You could tell it used to be some kind of Main Street at some point, but that people left…. There were empty shop windows and a boarded up movie theater, and the big, open, empty block where our cars were parked.
“I could move back, you know?” she said.
“I wouldn’t advise it.”
“Why not? I used to live here before.”
“Why would you want to live here?” I asked incredulously. She looked at me like a lost puppy dog, her eyes welling up again. This time she started to cry. “You can’t move back, there is nothing here. I promise you it’s better where you are.”
“I know what it’s like,” she said. “I used to live here. I know what it’s like.”
We stopped at my car and looked at each other. I knew this was it, whether she did or not. I went to hug her and she gripped me tight. I could feel her sobbing, her whole body shaking. When I pulled away she hesitated. She moved like she was going to kiss me, but I stopped her. “I can’t,” I said. She pulled away from me, turned and ran to her car. I stood there, motionless… transfixed. I watched her get in her car. She sat there for a while, crying, I imagine.
After what felt like a few minutes, I turned, head sunken, and walked the rest of the way to my car. I got in and waited until I saw her drive away.