As he does every year, Bob rents a car and drives us to DC, our first stop on an annual trek to see my parents and four of my five brothers. We spend the night at our friend Ned’s and pick up my brother Joe at Dulles in the morning. He’d nearly missed his flight. “It’s not a vacation unless you’re running through the airport!” He says this every year.
We decide to make a vacation bingo card. If Jim says “You know, it’s funny,” we’ll mark off a square. If John suggests we taste the honey locust blossoms, if we sneak out to the farm, if Dad loses his temper, if the great grands run up and down the wheelchair ramp and piss off the old folks.
The three of us, me, Bob, and Joe make our rounds. We have a two night layover at Jim and Kathryn’s lake house before heading west. They’ll catch up to us in a couple of days. I know we’re getting close to Shippensburg when the scent of suburbia gives way to liquid shit. Cow manure is the smell of Amish country in the spring.
We’re staying in the fourth floor turret room at Shippen Place. Just like last year. Entering the lobby I’m hurled into 1970. Heavy metal head banger riffs, and plump teenagers hoisting trays for pocket money. They haven’t changed the tape in years. The heart thumping music makes me edgy. I choose the back stairs for my escape and find myself in an alley named Apple Avenue. Someone has stuck a bleached white washcloth between the door and frame so they can get back in without going through the lobby. I hesitate for a moment before wedging it back in place.
Outside, the streets are refreshingly warm but soon turn steamy as I trudge across a memory landscape. I clip past the Methodist Church with the loudspeakers that ring the quarter hour from seven until ten. I pretend not to see a man smoking on his back steps in a dingy beater tee. We kids used to call them “grandpa overalls shirts.” I pass another church and another, parking lot after parking lot.
My fact pattern begins to blur. I’m not seeing things as they are but rather as they were. I first hear that phrase from Kathryn. “It’s lawyer speak for ‘the story.'” I return to our room where Bob’s earnest smile brings me back to the present. Thank god I met this man, I think.
I wonder how my brother John can live here. Like me, he left as a teenager, but he and Darla moved back after they had their three kids. Unlike us, Darla grew up here. Her parents and grandparents are buried here. Their ten grandchildren have never known any place else. They play in the same parks she played in as a child.
The morning after Jim and Kathryn arrive in Shippensburg we go for a wander. Kathryn and I follow Jim to a patch of lawn where he peers across the street trying to picture a house that’s no longer there. It seems significant, so Kathryn and I obligingly squint toward the object of his mind’s eye. He shows us a hill where he lost control of his bike and crashed into the back of someone’s leg. He got yelled at, he says. Jim was only five years old when we moved here from his first home in New Jersey. It was my eighth move. I was sixteen with one foot out the door.
We cross the tracks near where the Harpers used to live. Those afroed twins everyone called “the Harper girls” were my closest friends during that year and a half. We were a triad of trouble. Together we mourned when Jimi Hendrix, and then Janis died. Once we decided we’d had it and ran away to their older brother’s place in Harrisburg. A day or two later we were arrested while sitting at a dimly lit bar reaching for three open bottles of Rolling Rock.
We walk past what used to be Julia’s house, a handsome Victorian that dominates the corner of Orange and Prince. Julia took me in when I was seventeen, after my parents and I mutually agreed to split. Pointing, I say “I lived in that room up the stairs behind the little window.”
We cut through Grace United Church of Christ’s parking lot where I remember waking up with the mother of all hangovers, grateful to have blacked out most of the night before. I had made the mistake of going out with a nice looking guy from school. He showed up with a friend and a bottle of rum. After that I stayed away from the clean cut guys and stuck to freaks, geeks, and blacks.
Walking past a Victorian home with a pointy-roofed turret Jim says, “You know, it’s funny – I used to be afraid of this house.” Kathryn says she loves the house, even its unnaturally pointed hanging baskets and hollow-eyed tower. Nothing about that house is lurking in her past. But I’m looking at it through Jim’s eyes and feel his shudder, his urge to run. We turn back towards the hotel. It’s close to ninety degrees and I’m spent, sticky and soiled.
The next day, I climb into my brother John’s van for a trip to North Mountain. The honey locust in his yard has mostly dropped its blossoms and they are drifting like snow on his driveway. “These are old” he says, shoving at them with his boot toe, “They taste better when they first come out.” A block away we pass another tree just coming into bloom. “Grab a bunch of those, youngster,” he drawls. I reach out my window and bend back a branch. I pop some in my mouth and smack my lips for emphasis, like a giraffe. They are good, kind of chewy with a hint of vanilla. John is laughing.
John and I hike a shaded trail to an old dam and look across a valley that used to be a lake. On the way down, he dives into the undergrowth and retrieves a green canvas camp chair. I test it for comfort while he leans back on a log. We talk about everything. After we’ve rested he returns the chair to its hiding place.
On the way home John stops in front of a small house with two barns and a “For Sale By Owner” sign. He and Darla are thinking of selling their two-story home, planning ahead for their golden years. I dream along with him for a while before he pulls the van into gear and drives through a 130-year old covered bridge. I imagine the sound of horse and buggy echoing off the timber sides. Livestock doesn’t spook at the water below while crossing a bridge like this. Some people call them kissing bridges.
Out here amid the orderly farms, away from that little asphalt town with its forty-eight churches I see so much more than that old fact packet of teenaged angst. I feel a sense of place and see generations of family when I look through my brother’s eyes.