The more cynical residents of Pynchon, PA claimed jam would go out of fashion before the town boasted an inhabitant of note, but the place was very much like thousands of small towns across America. It was a fair to middling blot on the landscape with thirty thousand residents, drive-thru burger joints, and an underachieving baseball team; and its attractions included a permanent fairground of rusting carousels, a correctional facility for troublesome women, and a jam factory.
Paxil Lowe was born in the summer of ’49, when the workers at Pynchon’s jam factory walked out over the monthly staff allowance of apricot preserve. This event didn’t register with Paxil’s parents – Lucky and Sue – seeing as they were living in Reno. They were a sweet looking couple but more inclined to raising hell than a child, and a baby put strain on their relationship. When Paxil turned one Lucky and Sue decided they wanted out, so split their meagre possessions and cut a pack of cards to decide who didn’t get Paxil. Sue lost and drove fourteen hours to her sister Dolores in Pynchon, where she abandoned Paxil for safekeeping and disappeared without trace.
Dolores proved a great substitute Mom and Paxil grew up to be a happy son-of-a-gun, except when he got the blues. They started in his early teens, when his soul would be infrequently gripped by an iron fist, and then he’d spend days curled in his pine rocker upon his aunt’s porch, gazing out over Pynchon. The pills Dolores made him swallow each morning kept the blues at bay, but Paxil still liked nothing better than sitting in his pine rocker enjoying the sight of Pynchon.
I met Paxil on the eve of my sixteenth year, when he found me sobbing on the sidewalk, homeless and helpless.
‘Your folks will be worried,’ he said, eyes blinking behind the thick lenses of ill-fitting spectacles.
‘Mom just put a slug in Daddy,’ I said, clutching my canvas sack to my chest.
Paxil removed an old tobacco tin from a pocket and flipped the lid.
‘One of these?’ he enquired, smiling at the yellow capsules. ‘Lift your spirit.’
I shook my head.
‘Come and meet Dolores,’ he said. ‘There’s room for you on the porch.’
And so Paxil became my protector.
‘Duke McCool?’ Paxil queried, sitting in his pine rocker. ‘That’s an unusual name.’
‘Blame my parents,’ I advised, gazing out from the porch.
‘My Daddy was Banjo Macaroni,’ he grinned. ‘When he was conceived his Mama was cooking macaroni and a neighbour was playing the banjo.’
We laughed and knocked our beer bottles together.
‘What do you do, Paxil?’ I asked.
‘Can’t say I do anything,’ he replied. ‘I’m happy to sit here and enjoy Pynchon.’
I near choked on a mouthful of beer.
‘You like Pynchon?’ I coughed.
‘Sure,’ he smiled, eyes wide and bright. ‘Don’t you?’
I didn’t say anything, but Paxil knew I wanted out of Pynchon.
It would have been easy to follow Paxil’s example and do nothing. Dolores was happy for me to sleep on her porch and eat at her table. But after a week – by which time Pa had died of his wounds and Mama was locked-up – Paxil took matters in hand and set my life on a new course.
‘Visited your school today,’ he told me over dinner.
I near choked on a mouthful of meatloaf.
‘Teacher said you’re bright,’ he continued. ‘But lazy.’
‘So?’ I challenged.
‘You planning on spending all your days in Pynchon?’ he demanded.
‘No way,’ I muttered.
‘What I thought,’ he nodded. ‘From Monday you’re taking school serious. Understand?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Two years hard work,’ he said. ‘That’s all it takes. Then freedom.’
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Let me down I’ll wring your neck,’ he warned. ‘Now eat your food and chew it properly.’
‘Do as Paxil said,’ Doreen added. ‘Or you’ll get dreadful gas.’
‘You ready to sink your teeth into that peach?’ Paxil grinned, as tears welled behind his thick lenses.
Since my telling him two years before that I intended to study in the Big Apple Paxil had labelled New York the peach.
I nodded, kissed Dolores on the cheek, and stepped onto the bus.
‘Duke?’ Paxil called.
‘Paxil?’ I said, swallowing tears I didn’t want him to see.
‘You forget this place,’ he sniffed. ‘You got a big future. Memories will hold you back. And Duke?’ he added. ‘Forget me, too.’
He placed an arm across Dolores’ shoulder and they shuffled away.
I next returned to Pynchon a half-decade later. By then I was twenty-four and driving a Trojan 500SL. The Trojan belonged to my girlfriend, Bruchetta Towes, whom I’d met on my first day of employment at Bank of New York. Despite being only two years my senior, she was on in the fast lane heading towards a Directorship.
‘What kind of a place is this?’ Bruchetta groaned, as we entered Pynchon. ‘I’ve seen more life in well-done steaks.’
Paxil was sitting in his pine rocker.
‘Told you to forget me,’ he said, as we approached.
He hadn’t changed.
‘I wanted Bruchetta to see,’ I told him.
‘A tasty name,’ he smiled.
‘Are you still taking the yellow pills?’ I asked.
‘I’m too tired to be mad,’ he chuckled.
‘Doing nothing looks exhausting,’ Bruchetta muttered.
Hurt flickered across Paxil’s face. I could have wrung Bruchetta’s neck.
‘When one tires of Pynchon, pretty lady,’ he said, ‘one tires of life.’
‘But you love this place,’ I laughed.
‘Of course I do, Duke,’ he said, closing his eyes. ‘I love this town enough for everyone.’
He fell asleep soon afterwards.
We chatted with Dolores for a while, but then Bruchetta made it clear she wanted to leave. Paxil was sleeping soundly when we drove away and Bruchetta warned that my ever returning to my hometown would mark the end of our relationship. Then I asked her to marry me.
Thirteen winters passed. Bruchetta and I married, both our careers soared and our wealth amassed. We enjoyed company transfers to Sydney, Moscow and Paris. But the Apple was our home and we were glad when the order to return arrived.
I hadn’t spared a thought for Paxil or Pynchon in years. They couldn’t have been more distant than on the evening Bruchetta told me she was pregnant. We celebrated with dinner at Chez Gascon, our favourite restaurant in the East Village.
‘There was a message for you,’ Bruchetta told me, when we slipped into bed.
‘Who was it?’ I murmured.
‘Do you know a Dolores?’ she asked. ‘She wanted you to know Paxil’s dead.’
I sat on the porch with Dolores, the empty pine rocker between us.
‘His heart was too kind,’ she chuckled. ‘Like a well cooked cake.’
‘There’s no such thing as too much kindness,’ Bruchetta said, delivering tall glasses of iced tea.
‘Paxil said it was time he got going,’ Dolores smiled.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
‘Said his work was done,’ Dolores replied. ‘That someone had arrived to take his place.’
‘What was he talking about?’ I demanded.
Dolores stood and entered the house. She returned a couple of minutes later with a large leather-bound photo album.
‘He said this would help you understand,’ she said.
Upon the album cover in golden script were the words: Your success depends upon the place you’ll never abandon… Pynchon, PA.
Each page was crammed with photographs and brief explanatory notes: the first tree you climbed – in your Mom’s backyard… The store where you bought candy as a child… Your Papa’s usual bar… The stream you visited when feeling blue… Your favourite fairground carousel – because of the purple and yellow horses… The town hall you passed on the way to high school.
With each snapshot memories from my childhood and adolescence and summers that I had believed unrecoverable were returned to me. And to my surprise I didn’t shy from those memories; they made me smile and laugh and cry. For hours I related to Bruchetta and Dolores my history – a history Paxil had resurrected for my benefit.
‘You’ve never told me these things before,’ Bruchetta smiled when I closed the album.
‘That’s the way cakes bake,’ Dolores chuckled. ‘The past only needs retelling in the right way for us to understand what it meant.’
I became a father earlier this year. Bruchetta happily agreed to name our son Pynchon.
‘He shares names with one of the greatest American writers,’ she tells the curious.
We considered naming him Paxil, but Bruchetta refused on account of it being a type of antidepressant. I believe think Paxil approves of our choice: he loved Pynchon and our son’s name is a tribute to his role in my life.
We visit Pynchon, PA every few months and Dolores is the most welcoming of hosts and an excellent Grand mom.
I’ve decided that Pynchon is haunted, but amiably, by Paxil’s ghost. Towns like Pynchon need such ghosts to remind people from where they come and to not lose sight of the moments that defined who they are. It’s something I learned the hard way – when my oldest friend couldn’t tell me himself – but I won’t make that mistake with my own son.