They pulled into an old Sunoco station somewhere up in the Poconos, about as pissed off at the world as is possible for one family to be. After the knock-down drag out with her folks that morning, Beth Piccolo had become frighteningly quiet. Crying was one thing. Al could handle crying. But now she had taken to staring sort of zombie-like out the window and he had no idea what to do. For a long time they just drove in silence. Later on he tried logic. “To be fair, Beth we can’t blame your dad.” Al said with a shroud of charity that was profoundly uncharacteristic.
“Wanna bet?” she snapped with more vehemence than she intended.
Al was quiet for awhile after that…thinking. Then he said, “It’s not your dad’s fault we’re up against the wall,” surprising even himself that he was defending his lousy father-in-law, for godsakes.
Beth continued to stare out the window at what appeared to be a river of identical Pocono pine trees streaming by at a more or less constant forty mph. It looked a little like something out of a cheap cartoon where the same barn, cow, and silo flew by every four seconds.
“How ’bout I loan ya a couple hundred?” she whispered softly, wistfully to the window, mocking her father’s words of a few hours ago. “Thanks, Dad,” she replied in a harder voice…her own voice, and in her mind she weighed out how far that two hundred dollars would go for a family of three. It’d pay about one fourth of last month’s rent which was already way overdue. The loan ya seemed for some reason to be particularly excruciating at the moment and a phrase popped into her mind from twenty years ago in some long ago forgotten English class. Home is the place where… when you have to go there… they have to take you in. “Yeah right,” she snapped to the voice inside her mind.
Al looked over from the driver’s seat. “What?”
“Nothing,” she sighed and leaned her head back against the glass. But only a moment later she whispered, “What are we gonna do, Al? What the hell are we gonna do?” The tone was pleading and vulnerable and…frantic. The frantic part sent a chill up Al Piccolo’s spine and subconsciously he reached up and touched his shirt pocket. The piece of newspaper Beth had ripped out of the classifieds was still there: Jubilation PA: Excellent pay. Utopian working conditions. That’s what the ad said.
And now for the past two hours they had been driving around in what Al Piccolo was imagining to be huge county-sized circles, on mountain roads that weren’t even on the map, trying to find a fly-speck town that was supposed to be Jubilation, PA. After the first hour or so, all the roads and all the trees looked identical. Or maybe it was true. Maybe they were going around in circles. Up there it was impossible to tell. No WaWas, no Jiffy Lubes. Just…trees, trees, and more trees.
The only two signs that Al and Beth Piccolo had seen in the last hour were two crudely painted plywood signs with red letters advertising Pizza and Cold Beer. The first sign said: Pizza and Cold Beer—2000 feet ahead. The next one, which came up instantly said: Turn Back—You just missed Pizza and Cold Beer.
After Al turned around three times, finding not so much as a deer path wandering off into the woods, young Paul Piccolo, noting the change of tempo, popped his head up from the back seat and said, “Just screw it, Dad. We don’t have to eat,” and they drove off in what was rapidly evolving from dark depression to something more akin to rage. The station wagon left two angry swirling little tornadoes of dust next to the beer sign.
Ten minutes later Al Piccolo sat there at the old Sunoco station, red-faced and still fuming, the road map spread out in limp tatters over the steering wheel, its creases soft, like old cotton from having been folded so much. He squinted through half glasses trying to read the tiny faded print. Then he stuck his head out the window and yelled at the gas station attendant, “Hey—I’ve been driving around this goddamn place for two hours trying to find…” and at this point he stuck his head back in the map just to make sure it really existed, “Jubilation. Where the hell is it? Is it some kinda government secret or somethin’? They making plutonium up here?” Beth reached over from the shotgun seat and rubbed the back of Al’s neck where it always knotted up when he was going crazy.
The old man who was pumping their gas seemed to be extraordinarily serene about the whole thing, disregarding Al’s question entirely. Truth be known, he really didn’t look very much like a gas station attendant. No greasy strands of hair. For that matter, he had no hair to speak of at all..just a little salt and pepper fringe around the ears, like a monk. No dirty grimy fingernails…his fingers were pink, fleshy, and well-manicured like they’d be more at home behind a desk or a computer than a gas pump. …Or perhaps a sleigh. Yes, maybe he was a Jewish Santa Claus.
After he’d finished pumping and screwed the gas cap back on, the old man gazed with growing curiosity around at the hood of the Piccolo’s old Ford, his fingers running up and down under the grill trying to find a latch to open the hood. And when he couldn’t find it, the fingers began prying—heavily…fiercely…his face turning red and his knuckles bone-white from the pressure he was exerting. The front end of the car rose slightly off its shocks and then bounced down nervously…
“Jesus Christ, Al,” Beth Piccolo observed in a voice which seemed almost serene considering the circumstances, “I think he’s gonna pry the hood off the car.”
Al’s head bobbed out the window. “Hey…” Nothing happened. “Hey!” Nothing again… In fact there was no response whatsoever from the old man. Just that awful prying and the feeling that any moment the hood was going to pop up and fold in half.
“Hey!! Hey you! Stop! What the hell are ya doin’?”
The pudgy old man seemed to be totally oblivious to Al’s ranting and kept prying, his now eyes closed up tight under all the exertion he was putting into the plastic grill. He finally stopped, panted slightly and opened his eyes. “You sure you don’t have some kind of hood release or something in there?” he called out serenely and in perfect diction from the front of the car.
“What?” Al was growling more than yelling now, his mind rapidly becoming like hot cappuccino milk froth inside his head. “You crazy?”
The old man smiled good-naturedly and adjusted his glasses so he could see them better. And when he did, he could see Al’s beet-red face and the beginning of little spittle balls forming at the corners of his mouth. Then he nodded knowingly and smiled as if he had done this all before. He pointed with his index finger to the side of his head. “Loose connection!” he yelled.
There was a moment of silence before Al whispered from behind the wheel. “What? —My God, the guy’s nuts.”
“Wait a minute,” Beth said, “Look—”
Twelve year old Paul Piccolo sat up from where he’d been dozing in the back seat and gazed with fuzzy sleep-filled eyes out the windshield. He saw what appeared to be an old man…sticking spaghetti in his ear.
“This is my back-up unit!” the old man yelled. “The other one’s in the shop!” he continued as he adjusted a tiny knob behind his ear. A high pitched thweeeet emanated from the vicinity of his head and the old Jewish Santa Claus cupped his hand to his ear and looked around. “Testing testing… Ahhhh… much better!” he said in a quieter but equally cheerful voice.
Something inside Al’s head was fizzing now, as if someone had popped an Alka Seltzer and dumped it in his brain.
“Oh, he’s just got a hearing aid,” said Paul as he slumped down in the back seat. “For a second, I thought we were in The Twilight Zone.”
“As I was saying,” said the old man benevolently, “do you have a hood release or something? I’d like to check your oil. But it’s a little difficult if…”
“Oil’s fine,” Al snapped, and he mentally weighed out the pros and cons of asking this apparently insane man where Jubilation, PA was again. He mentally flipped a coin inside his mind and as was usually the case when he gambled with himself—he lost. He took a deep breath to try to calm down. “What we’re trying to find is a place called…” and he looked back down at the map, “Jubilation.”
“Ahhhh,” said the old man.
“For the past two hours we’ve been driving all over hell. We’ve been on every goddamn dirt road in this county… It’s not here.”
The old man grinned widely and benevolently in a way that instantly annoyed Al. “Jubilation,” he said, pronouncing every syllable so clearly that Al wondered whether he was also going to spell it as well. “Technically speaking, Jubilation is…oh, I’d say approximately three minutes from here.” He paused for a second, thinking. “Or…”
“Or?” Al Piccolo’s hairy eyebrows jerked up like two fighting caterpillars on his graying balding head. “What do ya mean—OR? There’s two answers here?”
Al’s response seemed to tickle the old man. “Well… Yes as a matter of fact. Actually… in a manner of speaking…you’re here already. Welcome to Jubilation!” and he grinned widely.
Al looked out the windshield. Besides the Sunoco station there were mountains which from their vantage point looked like great big blueberry muffins and several billion of the same kind of pine trees that they’d been passing for what was beginning to seem like an eternity.
“Yes, in fact… that reminds me of a story…that is, if you have a moment.” The old man paused for the time it took to take a quick breath and then went on, “See there was this elephant, and there were these three old blind men…”
Paul Piccolo sat up straight in the back seat, his crew cut squashed down and the right side of his face pink on one side from sleeping on it. “I was wrong,” he whispered behind his mother’s ear. “We are in the Twilight Zone.”
A police car appeared rather suddenly in the rear view mirror and Al watched it become larger and larger with the increasingly innate fear that all mankind have for black and white automobiles. It zoomed up the road, raising the dust like it was chasing something, then swooped into the gas station like a cruising killer whale raising another cloud of dust in the turnaround behind the gas station. The old man put a handkerchief up to his face and followed the squad car with his eyes. Al thought he heard him say something like, “aw shit,” under his breath. But then the old man waved with the same good-natured quality that he had just applied to them.
“That’s just Bobby Killian—our token cop. He really seems to enjoy doing that,” explained the old man, with what seemed like a slight tinge of town pride. “He likes to get going real fast down the road, then he pulls in and does this big dusty doughnut—I’m glad I don’t sell used cars. I’d be out here washing them all the time.” Then the old man peered back in the car to make sure he still had a full house audience and he licked his lips. “Hey—what’s happenin’?” he mimicked in a thin snappy buggy whip voice that foretold of what the cop was going to sound like. To Paul it sounded a little like Bugs Bunny. “Nothing much, how are you, Bobby?” he replied in his own beautifully modulated voice.
Sure enough, the cop pulled in fast, then when he got in front of the high octane pump he jammed on his brakes at the last second and the black and white car shuddered to a stop. He rolled the window down and looked out. “Hey, Ed,” the little red moustached cop snapped with the same voice the old man had just used.
Ed Mavin deflated, looking slightly disappointed.
The cop looked around, snapping his gum like he owned the place. “So… what’s happenin’?”
The old man’s smile appeared like the sun. “Ahhhhh… Not much Bobby. The birds are singing. The fish are jumping. And God is in his heaven.”
The cop stopped chewing for a second and looked at him. His eyes rolled around in their sockets. “I don’t hear any birds,” he snapped, his mouth on automatic pilot. “Ya know, Ed—you’re frickin nuts. One of these days they’re gonna be strappin’ the ole funny suit on you. You know—the kind with the straps in the back?”
The cop’s attention seemed to wander slightly. He looked over at Al Piccolo’s beaten up station wagon and subconsciously licked his lips as if he were a cat watching a robin. There was bound to be something he could write up… a broken tail light perhaps. That was good for maybe fifteen bucks. Or perhaps a license plate light out…a crack in the windshield...something. You could tell just by the patina of rust and dust and neglect that the car wasn’t very familiar with the inside of an auto shop. The cop looked Al right in the eye, snapped his gum and got right to the point. “So what’s with you?”
Instinctively, and with a certain amount of past experience from blowing up at the cops back in Brooklyn, he tried to submerge the part of his brain that contained all the cannonballs, torpedoes and gun powder. “Nothing officer,” he said with what was for Al, wondrous neutrality, “I’m just a little lost.” In the shotgun seat Beth nodded in appreciation of the performance.
“You’re lost?” Bobby Killian snapped. Then he looked around at all the identical trees and cackled. “I can’t think why. Where you from? Brooklyn?”
Al frowned at him. “Uhmm… Yeah, how’d you know?”
“Brook-a-leen,” Bobby Killian pronounced, dragging out every syllable. “Your mouth’s a dead friggin giveaway. Besides, I come from Queens. So what are ya doin’ up here in da boonies?”
Al Piccolo thought for a moment considering all the levels of fealty that were coming into play. The guy was obviously a cop…which obviously worked against him. But he was also from Queens which tended to cancel that out just a little. But then, he was a smart ass, which worked against him again. But then again, he was a cop, and because of that you had to be careful. He’d seen all the old movies about Georgia cops and how they were like flypaper for people heading down to Florida. This place wasn’t Georgia, though it was beginning to feel like it. Al fished a small raggedy section of newspaper out of his shirt pocket and unfolded it. He peered down through his glasses and began reading aloud.
Wanted Desperately: I require a fine multi-talented
craftsman / artist for full time position. The work, I believe, is
extremely interesting. The pay is excellent, and the
working conditions can best be described as nearly Utopian.
(Must know how to use a chain saw and garden tractor)
717-555-1792. Jubilation, PA.
“What the fuck kinda ad is that?” Bobby barked from behind the wheel. In an instant he was out of the car and sauntering over, with his, Now you’re gonna get a ticket, swagger. Al looked at him and tried not to stare. Bobby Killian was short…truly short and with the exception of a thick red moustache, he gave the impression of being a nasty little kid. Taken in total, with his heavily starched dress blues and enough patches, bells and whistles to do a whole squadron of fighter pilots proud, he looked like a tough little kid dressed up to go out trick or treating.
He grabbed the newspaper clipping out of Al’s hand and began mumbling aloud, “extremely interesting… pay is excellent… —Utopian working conditions? Hah! What the hell does that mean?” Then he looked at the telephone number. “Oh, Okay. Now it makes a little sense. That’s Larry Pasternak’s number.”
“Pasternak?” asked Al dully, trying to think of something to say. “Is that like, Boris Pasternak?”
Bobby Killian looked at him blankly. “Yeah, it is. Except Boris Pasternak is dead… and he’s a different person. Except for that, they’re exactly the same.” Then he looked up to heaven as if he had some sort of direct line. “Jesus Christ,” he groaned as he looked over at Ed Mavin for confirmation that he was talking to a complete idiot.
“How do I get there?” asked Al, annoyed at the pantomime.
Bobby chewed a little on the long side hairs of his moustache and then began shaking his head in thought. “If you’re not familiar with the area…it’s pretty easy to miss.”
Inside the beaten up station wagon Beth Piccolo suppressed a groan. Bobby peered in the window and smiled. “So, you’ve already gotten lost a couple times?”
“Mister—We’re still lost,” Beth answered honestly.
“I see,” and he looked off into space smiling benevolently. “Well, I guess the best thing is for you to follow me. But then when you get there, don’t tell Larry I showed you the way. He’s kinda…funny. Kinda…reclusive. Is that the right word, Ed?”
Ed Mavin smiled benevolently. “You get a gold star, Bobby.”
Killian looked back at Al and twirled his finger next to his head. “Uhhh…Ed…he’s a little weird too,” he said in a half whisper.
The black and white police car cranked to life and then roared off down the road with Al’s station wagon committed to a hot pursuit—almost invisible behind Bobby Killian’s billowing clouds of dust. For the next five minutes Al Piccolo used every swear word he had ever learned while Paul held on to the arm rests in the back and Beth held onto the dashboard.
Fortunately Killian had gotten far enough ahead that Al was able to see the car reappearing from the cloud of dust, its brake lights flaring in the brown air, the car at a virtual standstill in the middle of the road. Al stood on the brakes and slewed and skidded to a stop, about three feet from the bumper of the police car. Bobby was already out and walking back.
“Up there. That’s the place,” he snapped, pointing to what looked like a gravel path that disappeared up the mountain and into the trees.
Al stared in disbelief at the subtlety of this man’s driveway. There was no mailbox, no sign, no nothing, and the path had been sculpted and carved out with such assiduous dedication to stealth and non-existence that hungry deer would have had trouble locating the road.
Bobby whipped out his ticket book and began examining the front end of Al’s station wagon with great interest. “Ya know, I could give you a ticket for speeding back there…”
“Huh?” After all the shit they’d gone through, Al felt like something was ready to snap. He tried to breathe evenly. In and out, in and out.
“Yeah—you don’t even know these roads. I do. They’re pretty tricky, ya know. You coulda gotten into trouble with your, uhmm careless driving.”
Al tried Beth’s trick of focusing on a fly speck, concentrating on it, rather than blowing up.
Bobby looked up and down at the little check list on his pad. “Maybe even reckless driving,” he added seriously.
“What?” Al barked, his blood pressure starting its trek up toward two hundred. Beth grabbed his knee and began to squeeze it hard. The pain sobered him only slightly.
“Hah hah hah!” cackled Bobby Killian. “Gotcha! I knew you had a little Italian temper down there.” Then he went serious again. “Okay—Here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m not going to give you a ticket for speeding. How’s that?”
Al glared at the windshield. “But I am going to give you a ticket for your turn signal. The plastic’s busted.”
“How much is that?” Al asked woodenly.
“Fifteen bucks—No big deal.”
After Killian, drove off leaving a thin spiral of dust to remember him by, Al and Beth just sat there for awhile with the Ford idling at the base of a rather impressive and substantial mountain owned by Mr. Lawrence W. Pasternak. Their son, Paul, remained in the back seat, sneakers pressed up against the back window making dusty diamond patterns on the glass and getting hungrier by the moment.
It was early spring and despite Ed Mavin, the gas station attendant’s verbiage—the birds were not singing in the trees. Whether or not the fish were jumping was impossible to verify, and the part about God being in his heaven was really a moot point for the Piccolo family, having been beaten down, pushed around, and moved from job to job way too many times for them to believe in any sort of kind and benevolent God.
If nothing else, at least it was quiet up there, particularly compared to East Orange, New Jersey where they’d just suffered through the last handful of years. The 727s and the 747s in this particular sky were only noiseless slivers of abstract silver light, inscribing delicately knotted threads upon the upper stratosphere. Not at all like East Orange where the pilots slurped coffee from foam cups and hunted around on the cockpit floor for jelly filleds they’d dropped during take-off. Sometimes the consequence of all this was a great surging roar up in the sky as the coal was poured on to 800,000 pound turbo thrust engines. This had the effect of rattling half the china off Al and Beth’s cupboards and temporarily deafening all the frogs in the Secaucus. At that point Al would stand up red-faced, and throw his newspaper up at the ceiling and swear in Italian while Beth would get down and pick up whatever was left of the plates.
Al rolled the window down and lit up a cigarette with the certain uncopiable flare that Europeans have for such small tasks. He blew the smoke casually out the window and looked around. It was chilly, but it was almost spring. Up here, unlike New Jersey, the snow had been so deep for so long that huge ten foot dirty piles of snow still stood in quiet testimony to the blizzards of winter, pushed there by the great yellow butterfly plows that roam the area from November to March.
Al examined the snow with what seemed like sudden great interest and took another puff. “It’s not black,” he said cryptically, “it’s brown.”
“What’s not black?” Beth asked.
“The snow. It’s not black up here. It’s brown…or maybe tan. It’s full of all kinda pine cones and leaves and shit.” His voice trailed off as it lost interest and he flicked his ash out the window. “You didn’t notice?”
“Usually it’s grey… or black from all the buses and the exhaust.” He sniffed the air as if to verify his observation and shifted around in his seat.
“You don’t want to go up there, do you?” asked Beth.
Al made a face at his reflection in the windshield and looked up the mountain, wondering how one lousy human being could own so much land. “To tell you the truth—I don’t know. This..reclusive thing—it makes me nervous. Did you notice? Even that little cop didn’t want to go up there. I mean, he knows the guy and he doesn’t wanna go up. I don’t know him. What am I supposed to do? I feel like I’m paying a visit to the Rockefellers.”
Beth Piccolo had had a lot of experience raising kids. She had spent half her childhood babysitting either her sisters or brothers or the neighborhood kids. And then she’d done a pretty good job with Paul. But lately, with Al out of work again, it seemed as if she’d inherited one more. Only in certain ways he was the worst of all, because he could act like a child, but then he could turn around and fight like a grownup.
“How’d he sound on the phone?” asked Beth.
“Like…nothing. Like he didn’t want to talk on the phone.”
“Well…okay. Maybe he doesn’t like phones. Or maybe…Maybe we can look at it this way—We drove all the way up here, and we’ve driven on every godforsaken road in the county…”
“Yeah, well that’s not my fault,” Al said defensively.
“Nobody’s saying it’s your fault. It’s the fault of those idiots in charge of putting up signs. But, it seems to me that if we’ve gotten this far… I mean, we’re at the bottom of the guy’s driveway. It might be a good job… I think we should at least drive up and take a look…see what he has to say. Don’t you think, Al? Aren’t you just a little curious?”
Al stared morosely at the tip of his cigarette. “Not very. You heard what that little cop said. He said… Utopian working conditions—Hah! That’s what he said—Hah…. It’s bullshit, Beth,” and he looked back out the window. “This place look Utopian to you?”
Paul leaned forward in the back seat. His fuzzy crew-cut head and brown eyes bobbed back and forth between them. “Well I’m starving,” said Paul. “Do you think this guy has anything to eat up there?”
“Oh!” said Al as if he’d had a sudden revelation. “Ya know, that’s right. We haven’t eaten. We could find a place and then come back. It might put everybody in better spirits.”
Beth stared at him glumly from the shotgun seat and he could feel her eyes upon him. “If you don’t want to go up, just say so,” she said diplomatically but with a hook that was only slightly hidden. “We can go… somewhere else.” Her voice drifted off to nothingness.
Al’s face became harder and she knew he was drifting in the direction of another one of his bad moods. “Nope—that’s okay,” he snapped. “You wanna go—we’ll go. And we’ll see what this goddamn…recluse guy is all about. But I’m going on record. I don’t like the looks of it. It’s more bullshit.”
Al Piccolo dropped the station wagon into low gear and began churning slowly up through the pine cone laden snow and mud on the hill. It was tricky just keeping track of where the road was supposed to be It was as if a bulldozer driver had had one too many and just wandered around willy nilly through the woods, leaving long muddy gashes of rocks and debris behind him.
From the main road you couldn’t tell that the hill they were looking at from the bottom was just the first preliminary ridge. They drove up the red shale gravel for about two hundred yards at which point the road switched back radically to the right and became steeper and a different color. Pennsylvania clay—the color of old rotting pumpkins. They traversed the side of the hill for awhile, going along a steep ridge higher and higher, and feeling like they were about to fall off the side of the mountain. Then the road switched back again, disappearing once more into the safety of the forest. Al’s fingers relaxed slightly on the wheel each time they got away from the ridge.
“Look at this,” Al said with growing contempt for the insanity of the road. “It’s stupid. How’s anybody s’posed to get up here? What do they do in the winter, rent helicopters and parachute in?”
Beth and Paul remained quiet, not wanting to throw fuel on the fire Al was trying to start.
The road meandered back toward the ridge once more, opening into a clearing, and even without getting out you could see five or six horizons through the trees, each a slightly smokier shade of blue. As they continued to make their way up the hill, the road seemed to deteriorate progressively, and for the last couple of hundred yards Al had to drop it into low to get over the red shale washouts.
“If this guy’s a recluse, he picked a good place,” said Al. “I bet nobody comes here.” Then the road made one final valiant spiral up into a clearing at the top of the hill and Mr. Pasternak’s house finally came into view.
It was an old stone house with a slate roof and a wonderful arched stone porch in the front. The top of the porch was a slate floored sun deck, accessible from the upstairs bed room. It had been constructed by people who weren’t certain that the three thousand foot elevation would provide a good enough view. And so they made it three thousand and ten.
Al pulled up into the driveway and got out. The air felt fresh and cool and slightly thin, and the view, even standing there in the driveway was about the same as if you were up in one of those little puddle-jumper planes. Only slightly beneath them a layer of low thin clouds hung like a halo of cotton around them. He flipped the half-smoked cigarette into the gravel and ground it out with his shoe.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he said in a low voice.
“You sure you don’t want me to come in?” asked Beth.
Al looked around at the house and the mountain and at the tall and impressive looking pine trees. “Nah, I don’t think we’re gonna be here very long.”