By: Thomas M. Malafarina
© 2014 Thomas M. Malafarina
“Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to” – John Ed Pearce
“When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed but your childhood” – Sam Ewing
“Nothing but the dead and dying, back in my little town” – Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel
“You can’t go home again.” – Thomas Wolfe
Mason always believed someday he would return. There was something about his hometown and the many memories of his happy childhood there, which seemed to beckon to him. Ashton, Pennsylvania was somewhere in his mind and close to his heart throughout his entire life. It was odd how no matter how long he was away or where he happened to live, Ashton was the only place he truly considered home. There were times when he believed he could actually feel it pulling him, almost calling to him in a sad and mournful voice like the heartbroken cries of a jilted lover. “Come home… come home… come home.”
However, life had to be lived and there were things Mason Fredericks wanted to accomplish in his life, which he just couldn’t find in his simple little town. As a result, after graduation he had said goodbye to his hometown to attend college in another state and had never returned; not for any reason. He had missed all of his high school class reunions and all of his cousins’ weddings. In fact, he didn’t even return to attend family funerals, including those of his parents and his older brother.
During quiet moments at night or when he was traveling alone on long business trips, Mason often had pleasant memories of his youth in Ashton. He often thought about the parks, the local stores and of his childhood friends. He had been a paperboy and as such had known just about everyone in town.
At different times in his life, he had considered stopping back to see what had become of his precious Ashton, but he never did. He knew about the adage “You can never go home again” which was a take on an original quote by Thomas Wolfe and he believed he understood what that meant. He knew if he were to go home, all that would await him there would be change and disappointment. He loved his hometown but knew he would have trouble dealing with the changes.
The playgrounds, the schools, the stores, the houses, the people all would be different now. The world is constantly moving forward and as it did, it left the happy memories of young boys like Mason in its wake, replacing them with whatever was to follow. He often imagined the Ashton of his youth as a series of plastic railroad models laid out on a card table. Then while enjoying his fantasy, he imagined life coming along in the form of a rowdy child, who with a beefy arm would simply sweep his memories onto the floor where they would shatter into pieces.
Now, after more than forty years he had done it. He had finally returned home. Mason stood on the sidewalk staring in amazement at what he saw. He had prepared himself to see many changes. So many that he assumed he would barely recognize his hometown. But that hadn’t been the case at all. To his shock, the town looked exactly as it had looked when he was a boy. Over there was Leon’s Barber Shop and there was Marco’s Shoe Repair. He turned and saw Woodman’s Restaurant and Gerhard’s Dress Shop. It was incredible! The town looked exactly as he had remembered it from his childhood…. exactly.
Then he realized something was wrong. What he was seeing wasn’t possible. He recalled when he had left for college at age eighteen Woodman’s Restaurant had no longer been in business. The owner Stan Woodman had passed away and his children had no interest in the business. As a result, his widow had chosen to shut the place down. And hadn’t Marco the shoemaker retired, closed down the shoe repair shop and moved to Florida back when Mason was still in high school? Yet here they all seemed to be. None of this made any sense.
“Hey Perry Mason!” A voice called from the distance. He hadn’t heard the voice or that name in almost fifty years, but he recognized both immediately. It was Jimmy “Duke” Wellington, a well-known local troublemaker who had been two years older than Mason. Duke had always call Mason “Perry Mason” because of the popular TV Show from his childhood.
Then an icy chill crept down the back of Mason’s neck when he realized it couldn’t possibly be Jimmy Wellington because he knew Jimmy died in an automobile accident on his way home from high school graduation over forty years earlier. Mason looked in the direction of the voice and sure enough it was a twelve-year-old version of Duke Wellington and he was approaching a skinny young boy of about ten with a newspaper sack over his shoulder.
Mason felt his breath catch in his throat. He knew that boy. Somehow, impossibly that boy was him; a young version of Mason Fredericks. Mason suddenly felt weak, his legs became wobbly, his hands trembled and a buzzing noise began to rise inside his head. Then everything around him went black.
Mason awoke confused. The last thing he remembered was standing downtown. Then something… something happened. In his confusion, Mason had the strange detached feeling he often experienced after waking from a dream. Maybe that was what had happened. Perhaps he had been dreaming about something. He wished he could recall what it had been.
He looked around and discovered he was in the middle of a cemetery. He had no idea how he had gotten there. He recognized it as Brockman’s Cemetery, which he recalled was located near the western end of Ashton; and area locals referred to as the top of town. He remembered that his parents as well as his older brother were buried in this graveyard.
Mason looked down at the tombstones laid out in front of him and discovered he was standing at the exact location of his family’s burial plots. He suddenly felt a pang of guilt for having not attended their funerals. There had been no good reason for his absence, no justifiable excuse. Although at the time, his justifications did seem legitimate enough; at least to him. When his parents passed, he had been working in China as a representative for his company seeking new business opportunities. When his brother called with the news that his parents had both been killed in an automobile accident, Mason explained that he simply couldn’t get back to the states for the funerals. The deal he had been brokering was too big and far too critical for him to leave at this jointure.
Mason’s brother had been furious with him but Mason insisted there was nothing he could do about the situation. Then after a heated argument, just before his brother disconnected, he told Mason he never wanted to speak to him again and that he should ever bother to return home. Mason knew he was wrong and his older brother had every right to feel the way he did.
Now standing in this place of the dead, Mason was suddenly filled with sadness at the realization of how he had disrespected his parents and had let down his brother. They were all dead now and it was much too late to do anything about it. The melancholy inside him seemed to grow more intense as it finally sunk in that they were gone for good and he would never see them again.
Of course, he had known this reality for many years, but there seemed to be something so final about seeing their headstones carved with their birth and death dates that made it all so real to him; perhaps for the first time. Mason supposed this was what people meant when they spoke of closure. For the first time in his life, he realized he was all alone in the world. This realization troubled him more than he could have imagined.
In the distance, Mason saw a long black hearse followed by a similarly dark sedan coming along the gravel lane toward him. They stopped close to where he stood separated from each other by about ten feet. Two tall bleak-looking men in dark suits exited the hearse and walked to the rear where one of them opened the rear tailgate. Mason instantly recognized the one opening the gate. It was Jim Kulp, a member of his graduating class and son of the funeral company’s original founder, Bradford Kulp. Jim had apparently taken over the family business as Mason and most townspeople assumed, he would.
Mason wondered who the poor soul in the back of the hearse might be. Then the doors to the black sedan opened and four strangers in similar dark suits got out and joined the other two behind the hearse. Looking like sentinels, they lined up in formation, three on each side and slowly began sliding the casket from the hearse as its handles passed along the line.
Then Mason saw a weeping woman exiting the back of the sedan wearing a dark dress and black scarf over her head. To his shock, he realized it was his cousin Marylyn. Even though he hadn’t seen her in close to forty years she looked every bit as pretty as he had remembered her; much older but nonetheless beautiful. His heart went out to his cousin. He recalled she had married her high school sweetheart Bernie Walters and they had been together all these years. Surely, it must be devastating for her to lose him after so long. Then Mason wondered why their kids weren’t here, not to mention Bernie’s many friends and relatives. Mason assumed having lived in the area all of his life Bernie should have had a great precession of cars not just these two pathetic funeral vehicles. He suddenly felt great compassion for his poor cousin.
Mason decided he would approach her and offer his condolences for her loss. He realized he would likely have to introduce himself as she hadn’t seen him in so long and she would likely not recognize him. He walked up and stood beside her as the pallbearers slowly walked the casket over toward the graveyard.
He said, “Marylyn? It’s me… I’m sorry… about Bernie… I guess… Geeze… I just don’t know what to say.” He raised his hand to place it consolingly on her shoulder but stopped short when he heard her speak his name.
“Oh Mason,” Marylyn said with a sigh.
Mason was surprised. “Why… um… Marylyn… I’m surprised that you recognized me… you know… after all these years.”
Marylyn sniffled and dabbed her eyes, “Mason, why did you stay away so long? I remember how we were so close when we were children. You were like a brother to me and I really missed you so much over the years. And now to have to see you… like this.” She began to cry again.
“I… I understand Marylyn.” Mason said sounding contrite, “I missed you as well. I… I often thought about coming home… but I never seemed to get around to it. I’m so terribly sorry.”
She blubbered, “I had so hoped you would have been able to meet my daughter, Sarah. I often told her stories about you. We followed your career and cut out articles whenever one appeared in the business section of the newspaper. Sarah’s all grown up now and has a daughter of her own. I’m a grandmother. Can you believe it… me a grandmother?”
“That’s… that is very hard to believe Marylyn.” Mason replied, “I, myself… I never married or had any children. I guess I could never find the time. But I’m home now Marylyn, maybe I can find some way to make up for lost time.”
“So… well… I guess this is our final goodbye Mason.” She said with tears now running down her cheeks.
Mason was confused and replied, “No Marylyn. You don’t understand. I’m home now. And I retired last year so if I want, I can be home for good.”
Just then, Jim Kulp walked up to Marylyn and said. “Are you going to be alright now Mrs. Walters? Is there anything I can get for you before we proceed?”
“Hey Jim.” Mason said. “It’s me Mason Fredericks. You probably didn’t recognize me. I haven’t seen you since graduation.”
Marylyn said, “No. But thank you Jim. I’ll be all right. You can proceed with what you have to do.”
Mason was even more perplexed than previously. “Jim. It’s me, Mason. From high school? There’s no need for you to be so antisocial.”
“I feel sort of strange not having a ceremony or minister for you today Marylyn.” Jim said blatantly ignoring Mason. “Are you sure that is what he would have wanted?”
“To be honest, Jim. I have no idea what he would have wanted.” Marylyn explained. He had no living relatives and left no will. I just want to get this over with and head home.”
Mason said, “What do you mean Marylyn? Bernie had tons of relatives in the area and probably just as many friends. Where are they all?”
Jim said to Marylyn “Ok. This won’t take but a few minutes. You can wait in the car if you’d like.”
Marylyn turned and went into the sedan, closing the door behind her. Mason watched the team of dark-suited men standing next to the casket, which now sat next to a recently dug grave he hadn’t noticed before. It was located right next to his older brother’s plot.
“Well Mason.” Jim said looking down into the hole as the casket was lowered, “You did your best to stay away all these years and now you’re back for good. Who said you can never come home again?”