One look up and down this street, in all this sunshine, and I connect with it. Some towns are nothing. You climb down out of the van or step off the bus and your feet hit the street and you feel empty. Alone. You walk around, you go into a diner or a pizza place, but no one shows up. Nothing moves you.
Other places, like this one, like Lewistown, they come out of the corner swinging. Beat-up but coming at you. Unafraid. Or so afraid that fear doesn’t even matter anymore. On the far side of fear, you know what there is? You know what’s out there? Courage. Or death. Or both.
Outside the doctor’s office in the afternoon light, the ultra blue sky makes me feel forever in my bones. The high ridges rising a mile or so away/ the Appalachians looking down on the lazy Juniata sparkling in the midday gleam. There are places with soul and there are places with none. The soul places are rarer, of course. Harder to find in a world like this one. But they are there. And today we are here. On the streets of Lewistown trying to score some pills. Like a lot of other people around here. Trying to score some pills. Trying to find a way straight into the heart of tomorrow somehow.
Arle leans against a parking meter as I lean against the Honda. In the glass door of the office, I can see my reflection. I see me standing there bigger than ever before in my old Woolrich coat. I’m an imposing figure in a way, I guess, but probably only to a six-year-old or something. To most older kids and to the grown-ups who are my peers, like it or not, I am just another Dad looking shabby, thick, and tired. Arle is fit in her skinny jeans and her button-up shirt. She’s got good boots on, caramel suede with blood red laces. Her forever legs and her long ginger hair, they pull you in, they pull a man’s eyes in. A woman’s eyes. Then they stare too long, but I understand. I cuckold their moment before they have to wander off away from their dirty thoughts, back into their bullshit days of working or scrolling or whatever.
I fit in here though and I know it. I feel that in ways that promote inner growth unexpectedly, and suddenly. I have been down lately/ crashing through levels/ smashing into floors that turn into ceilings that turn into floors again. In a series of soundless frames you can watch me if you want: passing out in a kitchen, hitting the linoleum, slamming through the rotten floor and then down into another kitchen, like some old Atari game.
50 Floor Drop.
Down Daddy Down.
Landing on this street, in the pixilated 2 o’clock sheen, I plop down on my feet, in my dirty boots and my 1940s deer hunting coat and I am wearing my giant Dickies work pants from Walmart that are many sizes bigger than what I wore just a few years ago, and I wipe myself off, brush off the dust from the wild ride that got me here, and take a deep breath of hard luck town.
It tastes like mountain stream. Like Coors Light. Like a Coors Light on a Saturday morning in the woods at the park as Little League games are kicking off and you are vert fucked up and lost.
But it also tastes like the flush of a bird. Like dank pigeon dust or clean grouse sparkles. A familiar scent just before my lips and then the country smokiness of a mountain-ish place. Pennsylvania/ real true Pennsylvania/ far from the big cities/ far from the money and the lights/ it smells like Lebanon Bologna and burning wood/ and it tastes like toasted cigarettes and cave damp and republican pancakes.
All of this comes to me as I lean up against my filthy car on this Lewistown street, my wife saying nothing, me saying nothing, as my kid is inside trying to save herself from everything closing in at once.
From the moment I first met Arle, I was fascinated with her. She had always seemed to me to be gentle and soft. Quiet. Under-spoken, perhaps. On social media, where I had never heard her voice but often saw her face, I would stop at her photos of herself and try to understand the timbre and the tone. It couldn’t be a deep voice, I thought. But that would be cool. That would be hot.
I imagined she spoke in a slower voice, not spitting words out with no regard for the pacing or the cadence of the sentence drop. In my mind, based on pictures of a person I had never met but often wondered about, I heard a voice that sounded like a sweet mountain girl singing down in the crick bottom. Watching her from my deer stand high in a hemlock, I would pant at her natural movements down in the forest. It was as if she was born in the woods, born to a couple of deer up above Reedsville, up by Bird Rock, on the high ridge over the highway. Slipping out of a doe into a bed of pine needles, I felt like I had maybe been watching her all of my life. I had never felt that way about anyone before. I’m still not sure I did her any favors by becoming her man.
Look at me now. Oversized rural sack of wino blues. Big country bag of frozen pizza guts. Red and black flannel faded rocker running from nostalgia and shaking with an unshakable fever. Fever from living. Fever from life. Fever from fingering my trigger on a cold winter morning up in a tree. Fever from desire. Fever from fantasy. Fever from the imagined voice of a digital face. A slight smirk and a tight striped shirt.
I could smell the bobcats on the trails up the rockslides at the end of town.
Under her shirt.
I could smell the rattlesnakes fucking in her small town smile.
I could hear her say my name if I closed my eyes while I was supposed to be writing.
Then I would dream of everything going my way for once.
Then I would unsnap my pants.
We walk up the main drag together while we wait. They had said it would be a while. Not too long, but a while. Maybe 20 minutes. Maybe a bit longer. We had time to hit the coffee shop, the nurse practitioner said. So that’s what we do.
Conversation is slow to start and when it does it just kind of fizzles out pretty quickly. So much has happened. So much living has come down on us that it often seems as if there is someone out there somewhere with voodoo dolls of me and Arle. Pushing long pins into our hearts. Pushing sharp needles right through our throats. We each get breathless a different times. Choked by the hands of others, we get jump-scared by the words of people who have become so broken that they only know certain cycles anymore.
Beyond it all, we fight for the kids. For the 5. Hers and mine, both of ours together now. But still sort of hers and sort of mine. And other people’s, too. People we once knew who we know now only in stilted communication. They throw fire. They ignore and then attack. They park out front as if they have nothing to be ashamed of.
I spit on their roof from the bedrooms upstairs.
What else can I do?
What else can we do?
Me and Arle walk through the dark shade flooding this side of the street and we talk a little then go quiet a while. The walk isn’t far but it’s windy and cooler here out of the sunshine. In and out of blotches of memory, Arle points out certain places to me. Places she has pointed out before mostly, but I don’t mind. She knows I don’t mind. She knows I get off on the idea of her life. Of her being alive and feeling alive and acting so alive and so hungry and so active and so curious and so calm and so explosive and so out in nature and so up in the club and so hurting in the early morning and so fighting herself and so pushing away from demons and so trying to pull certain lads closer and so tired in the warm breath of an old black lab and so covered in watercolor paint and so touching her daughter’s tiny fingers and so understanding the crimes that have been committed against her heart and so listening to Springsteen on the porch in the June rain once upon a time when the whole system of galaxy after galaxy were all talking to her through a big metal creek pipe down from the stars, down from the never-ending rolling hills of space, muffled muted messages in high-pitched voices hushing her name at her, telling her secrets from behind the moons.
She points up at the old apartment she lived in when she first got a place of her own. She was tending bar then, dropped out of art school and not sure where she wanted to head in life.
Back in the office, my kid hits buttons on a computer, trying to cooperate with the request to push the space bar every time your supposed to. I don’t know. This is the test. For ADHD. For trying to help get this kid on the long harsh road back to feeling peace. Kids deserve peace but that’s not how things work.
Implements of destruction abound and the life is cold, distracted, and mean. One day the kid is eating an ice cream cone on the jungle gym at the park and I am taking a picture/ trying to place the sun over the ridge behind their shoulder just right/ and the Wiffle balls are in the grass and the vultures float on pockets of summer air/ and the farms give off deep resonating clangs in sets/ like dinner bells/ lonesome BLONG BLONG BLONGs that sound far away and filtered through the heat and the humidity until the sounds themselves are baked into reduced versions of their original selves and hung upon lines in the sky that slide down from the high pastures and over the backs of the steaming dairy cows flapping their tails at the bugs and down into the cool woods and out the other side all the way util they reach us, the single dad and his three kids, in the park by the pool where other people are splashing and laughing and screaming with joy and where I am balanced on the edge of existing, trying to capture a fleeting moment. Of a face that looks so much like mine. But with ice cream, in sunshine. Young and relaxed and okay.
The nurse practitioner had listened intently and asked the kid so many good, inquisitive questions and at least that gives me and Arle a sense of something. Of some kind of hope, I guess. We are in a good place. This joint is filled with people who care. People who want to help. But of course that kind of feeling comes when you need it. You imagine it even, maybe, or at least let it rise up around you based on a basic whiff of promise. A mere shard of something (of anything) more than hopelessness.
Arle says someone she knows lives in one of these apartments on one of these corners in this Lewistown square. She says the person’s name and I don’t really know them. They’re kind of a friend to her, I guess, but also more like an acquaintance. I don’t know. Arle has her own life outside of me. She always has and she always will.
I open the door of the coffeeshop and they are getting ready to close, but they take our order. An iced matcha for Arle. A mango smoothie thing for the kid back at the doctor’s. Nothing for me. Arle orders and pays while I look at a bin of vinyl they have for sale.
It’s all shit. Don Ho. Tijuana Brass Band. Perry Como. Just absolute cat shit.
Outside there is hardly any cars passing through town.
Everything seems dreamlike.
The world outside appears to be unfolding for no reason at all.
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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattling around his noggin. Once in a blue Muskie Moon, he backs away from the computer, straps on a guitar and plays some rock ’n’ roll with his brother Dave and their bandmates in Marah.