And so on the seventh day, I would make the trek from my one-bedroom apartment to the Monongahela river-valley. It was a time-traveling roller coaster of farm land and 1950s-style houses with 1960s-style décor. Each town seemed more dated than the last, and by the end of it you could swear that pompadours and shag carpet were still in style. I heard somebody say that Western Pennsylvania is a lot like an old rock and roll album—it might be a little scratchy, but it’s got a lot of soul. I think that pretty much sums it up.
It was a pilgrimage really, to a part of town only Ted Kaczynski could love: “The Haalla” was slang for, “The Hollow” which was slang for, “Black Diamond Hollow.” My Aunt Nance (a woman of a million fears) had called this abandoned wilderness home for as long as anyone could remember. A narrow gravel road split The Haalla in half and ran parallel to an old creek, which had stories of its own. In the summer, locusts would fill the emptiness of The Haalla with a deafening symphony of mating calls. In the winter, nothing made a sound, not even the old creek. There were only two residences (that we knew of), Aunt Nance’s being the larger of the two, inevitably made it, “The Haalla Mansion.” No one entered Haalla Mansion without Aunt Nance’s approval, no one knew the four-digit code to open the garage door, and no spare keys were ever made.
On the seventh day, cars were parked along the narrow gravel road in order of seniority, each one shinier than the last. At the end of the procession, if the timing was right, my Uncle Nick would be standing guard in the driveway of Haalla Mansion with a Salem tucked between his lips, perhaps contemplating a box score, or a lottery number, or the memories of Sundays past.
On other occasions, you’d arrive at The Haalla in sync with a fellow pilgrim (who may have knowledge of the secret code)—this was rare. On most occasions, you’d be reduced to rapping your knuckles against the cold white vinyl of the garage door. If you stood tall enough you could peak through the square windows to catch a glimpse of the basement hatch where the gate keeper would appear. Otherwise, you would wait to hear the flimsy wooden screen door smack against the jam with the nostalgic sound of summer. Soon thereafter, the heavy barrier would raise itself to the tune of motorized clanging. A glimpse under the vinyl curtain would reveal a pair of shiny white tennis shoes, belonging to my Uncle Vinny. Always the same white tennis shoes.