"It sure is a lousy day to be a beautiful day." I grumbled--not meaning to do so aloud--as the viciously pleasant sun rays streamed through the airplane window. I could feel the heat from the sunlight as it blasted across my hands. I could almost feel pain from the sunlight, as if I were a vampire and daylight was deadly. The excruciating sunlight illuminated my bony fingers--I admit it, I have bony fingers; I have bony elbows and bony knees; I'm a stick and always have been; a stick topped off with long black hair. As said bony fingers nervously drummed against the leather case of my portable computer. With a jittery turn, I glanced out the small glass oval, gritted my teeth and thought, for about the hundredth time in less than an hour, of just how intensely I hated flying.
Not that it was the actual flying that got to me. If that had been the case, I would have been more relaxed now that the plane had all six wheels safely perched on the ground. No, the flying part of flying didn't bother me. The turbulence hardly phased me. The heights didn't frighten me. I could even put up with the cramped leg spaces and I rarely entertained thoughts about my frail human body being torn to a thousand pieces of flesh shrapnel from the impact of the plane plowing into the side of a mountain. But the one thing that made me want to rip apart the seat cushions with my fingernails was a tiny little thing. A thing so small and meaningless that anywhere else in the world it would have gone either completely unnoticed or at most served as a minor annoyance. I'm talking about a little 4" x 2" piece of plastic, the little lighted sign above my seat which arrogantly proclaimed, "NO SMOKING." That one little piece of plastic made my life an utter hell and turned me into a most unpleasant person. Perhaps I had been evil in a previous life. Or maybe it was just the fact that I haven't been spotlessly good in this life. I have sinned, and the penance for my sins was in breathing the filtered smokeless oxygen of the airline cabin. Without the benefit of a cigarette, I was now trapped in a little metal capsule on my way to some mid-western town that I had never heard of in order to take the worst assignment of my journalistic career.
And all because of that one stupid little stunt at the White House.
"You see the way that friggin' sign is staring at me?" I snarled to the little balding man who had the misfortune of being my seatmate and therefore an unwilling partner in my misery. "Look at it. It's just glaring at me. Tormenting me. I swear, I'm gonna come back here tonight while the plane's in the hangar and I'm gonna smash that cocky little son-of-a-bitch into a hundred thousand pieces."
I looked back up at the sign and growled "You just watch it buddy."
Now I don't want you to think that I was, or am, some sort of a lunatic. I have never been diagnosed as such, nor is there any history of mental illness in my family. I wouldn't be surprised if a shrink told me that I qualify as clinically depressive, but that's hardly the same thing as being a lunatic. But at that moment, in the throws of nicotine withdrawal, I do admit that I was going a bit out of my skin. Any chain smoker will tell you that being trapped in a non-smoking situation will put you just a tad bit on edge. And being on an airplane is the absolute worst non-smoking situation in all of existence. At least in a restaurant or an office building or wherever you can step outside to grab a smoke. But just try to step outside of a jet and you can perhaps see why I was so freaky. Add to that the fact that my life at that moment was simply not worth a shit, and I hope that you can find a way to forgive me for momentarily being a bit schizophrenic.
"You just watch it," I repeated threateningly to that inanimate object.
My seatmate, not having the benefit of the above stated disclaimer regarding my situation, was obviously concerned that he was sitting next to a madman. As I mumbled to the sign he feigned being absorbed in reading an article from the in-flight magazine. The intense scrutiny which he paid to the page gave away the fact that he wasn't taking in a word of it; rather he was listening fearfully to me and keeping an eye on me with his peripheral vision, lest I suddenly leap at him and attempt to tear his flesh from his bones with my teeth.
I glanced around the cabin, and as I did so my mind, for just a moment, turned to the stupid incident which had landed me in this ridiculously humiliating professional situation. Then my eyes again fell on the evil "NO SMOKING" sign, and my mind was brought back to the plane. It seemed that even thoughts of my recent downfall--a subject which generally allowed me to wallow in a glorious pool of self-pity--couldn't distract me for more than a moment from the thoughts of my dire craving for cigarettes. This had only been a short flight from Indianapolis to Terre Haute. I had earlier survived the hellaciously long trip from New York to Indianapolis by the quite lucky accident that I had been so utterly exhausted that I slept nearly the entire way. But when I had transferred to this small plane for the last leg of my journey I was wide awake, and I had counted every minute the same way in which I counted every minute while conscious on an airplane--like a condemned man counting the days until his execution. Always the worst moments of torment were these torturous minutes on the ground just after landing, when the airplane would inevitably do a slow--excruciatingly slow--crawl toward the terminal. This was the time by which I was clawing at the seatback in front of me. Until the airplane's arrival at its gate, I was a prisoner. And although it was sheer torture for me to see the closeness of the great outdoors in which my puffs of smoke would dissipate harmlessly into the atmosphere, I couldn't tear my gaze away from the window. Terre Haute was out there. That supposed "high ground" was out there, hidden in the glow of that blasphemous sunlight.
As the overexposure of my vision began to correct itself I began to make out the shapes of trees and grass. Not much else, but definitely some trees and some grass. My left hand nervously traced the outline of the lighter in my pocket and I made a mental note to find out just what in the world "Terre Haute" meant.
My tongue involuntarily flicked at the unlit cigarette which had been dangling from the corner of my lip from the moment that the airplane's wheels had struck the ground. I had plunged it into my mouth as I jumped up to grab my computer from the overhead storage compartment. Now I stood straining with all of my willpower to keep from dashing toward the door before the flight attendants could open it. After what seemed to me like three eternities plus a day and a half, the door finally swung open. I was the first one out the door and down the ramp, my long, fine hair flowing behind me like a black wake behind a speed boat. The moment that my feet struck the ground, the lighter's flame came up to greet the cool, dry cylinder. I inhaled deeply, letting the smoke pass through my lungs, calming my jittery nerves. By the time I had made my way across the tarmac to the terminal I had consumed the entire cigarette.
I was under control once more.
So, now that I was once again at liberty to relax a bit what did I do? I stopped and lit up another cigarette. That done, I stood there at the edge of the tarmac and glanced about me to get an idea of my surroundings. Now that I had had my nicotine fix the sunlight seemed less oppressive, yet because of my overall state of mind I would not say that the sunlight was a completely welcomed thing either. Personally, I would have preferred something a bit more overcast, but such weather was just not in the cards for me today.
Despite the excess of sunshine I was still able, in those spare moments on the tarmac, to think about death. Have you ever thought about death? I mean really thought about it? Really put your mind into it like a method actor running through a part. To really concentrate on those horrible thoughts, explore every inch of them rather than shuddering and shaking them off as soon as possible? I have. I do constantly. Even on a bright shiny day when most people would involuntarily catch themselves whistling, still was I able to think of my body rotting away in a coffin.
It's a gift I suppose.
At any rate, after picking up my suitcase at the small baggage claim area, I took a look around the terminal. As I casually glanced around the building I noticed a sturdy-looking but slightly graying man at the far side of the room scanning all of the passengers as they passed him by. I have no idea why I noticed this particular man--maybe it was one of those karma things that I've always thought were such b.s.--but my eyes fixed on him almost immediately. The man paid little attention to the several men in suits, but focused his apparent search mainly on the kids who appeared to me to be college students. He ignored the two Japanese gentlemen. The old couple in matching pink shirts aroused in him absolutely no interest. He didn't even look twice at the beautiful brunette woman who passed so close to him that he could surely smell her perfume. But he latched his eyes immediately upon me.
The man walked over to me and extended a big friendly hand. He asked, "you the fella from that music magazine?"
"Yes," I replied as I set down my suitcase and extended my hand to meet that of my apparent host. "David Martinez," I said.
"Mark Ketchum. I'm Samantha's dad. She's auditioning some musicians so she asked if I could come and pick you up," said Mr. Ketchum. Then with that same friendly smile on his face he reached down to pick up my suitcase.
"Oh no, that's okay," I said waving toward the bag in an attempt to prevent him from grabbing it. "I'll get it."
But Mr. Ketchum already had his hands upon the luggage handles. "Don't worry," he said, "I've lifted bags a time or two before. Believe it or not, I'm not nearly as old and feeble as I look." He laughed, gracefully picked up the suitcase and headed toward the exit, "Besides you're our guest, and a person should always show some hospitality towards a guest. At least that was the way I was brought up."
When he spoke it was in an accent with which I was unfamiliar. His words had kind of a soft, rolling sort of a feel to them. Not enough to really be called a drawl or a twang. It had a slightly southern feel to it--but not really. His accent, which I was soon to find out was the dominant accent among the natives of Terre Haute, was more of a, I don't know, a lack of enunciation I'd say. It really wasn't severe as far as regional accents go, not like someone from Massachusetts or Texas, it was just that lack of enunciation. The best way that I can think to describe it would be as a "lazy tongue."
I thanked Mr. Ketchum, tucked my laptop under my arm and then dashed to keep up with the man. I watched in admiration as Mr. Ketchum easily carried the heavy case--the same suitcase which I had bitched and moaned about lugging out to the curb on my way to the airport in New York--and headed toward the doorway. Despite his claim, I didn't think that my host appeared to be in the least bit feeble. On the contrary, he looked like the kind of guy who could break a skinny guy like me in half. I doubted that he was all that old either, maybe in his early fifties. His mostly brown hair was only lightly sprinkled with gray, and he looked like a good solid man, the type who had worked hard all of his life and had the good health to show for it. If anyone looked feeble it was me. I had inherited my father's belief that the idea of physical exertion belonged to creatures a little lower down on the evolutionary scale. I had also inherited his fragile frame. Now you can argue about which caused which. Were Dad and I weak little things because we were physically inactive or were we physically inactive because we were weak little things? I don't know. But of course I'm sure that chain-smoking (which I also inherited from my dad) most likely didn't help either one or our physiques much either. So there we were, my father and I, sticks of men compared to the likes of Mr. Ketchum.
Mr. Ketchum and I walked out the doorway and headed across the newly paved parking lot. The early-summer air was quite humid but fortunately not too hot. I glanced around at my surroundings. Typical of regional airports, we seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere. I had been told that Terre Haute was a medium-sized city, but there certainly were no medium-sized cities in sight of this parking lot.
"When I asked Samantha just who the hell I was looking for," said Mr. Ketchum, "Samantha said to me, she said, ‘Dad, the guy's a rock music journalist. He shouldn't be too difficult to spot at a regional airport in Terre Haute, Indiana.' Now I trusted that advise, but I've gotta tell you, the more people came by, the more I began to doubt I'd find you."
"So was I that distinctly identifiable?"
"Let's just say that around here, there aren't too many people of your age with long hair and nose rings. It just doesn't happen."
"Of my age? I guess you know you're getting old when people refer to ‘your age'"
"Aw don't take it personally. I'm a hell of a lot older than you. so if anyone should be upset about that kind of stuff it should be me."
We arrived at a silver four-door sedan, a big American car in a land where the American car was still a sacred thing--I don't think that I saw more than a handful of Japanese vehicles the entire time I was in Terre Haute. Mr. Ketchum opened one of the rear doors, placed my bag in the back seat, then motioned toward the door and said, "Samantha said to treat you real nice since she said you were from about the biggest music magazine on the planet. So, do you wanna ride in front, or back here limousine-style?"
"The front seat would be fine," I said as Mr. Ketchum grinned at me good-naturedly. As I climbed into the passenger's seat I noticed the encouraging sign that the car's ashtray looked as though it got a regular workout. This was definitely a comforting sign for someone like me. A nice dirty ashtray brings to me that same warm feeling that some kids get when they grab onto their favorite blanket. "Do you mind if I smoke?" I asked as we pulled out of the parking lot.
"Naw, I don't mind. Long as Samantha's not around we can get away with it. She's never been too much for smoking and she's not shy about tellin' ya that either."
"Really? That sounds a bit strange for someone who owns a nightclub doesn't it?"
"Oh, she lets people smoke there. She ain't stupid, ya know. It's just that she can't really stand it too much herself. I can't blame her really. I don't much care for it either." Mr. Ketchum flashed me a conspiratorial grin, "Hell, I hate it so much that I've quit at least twenty times."
"Yeah I heard that," I said, and I lit up.
We were moving now, heading down some relatively large road away from the airport. I turned my head so that I could see the passing scenery. It looked pleasant enough around here, although the landscape was rather flat. There were plenty of burgeoning green trees, if a person was into that sort of thing--which of course I wasn't. But as a matter of professional habit I was always attuned to the surroundings when I went out on assignment--even on this, the most pointless assignment of my life. I long ago realized the rather important fact that it was the current surroundings which made up the environment for the subjects I was interviewing. To my subjects this was home, and some important insights could certainly be gleaned about a subject from simply noticing what your subject called home. What was this place? Who were the people who lived here? These are two questions which are intimately intertwined. The people make the place and the place makes the people. Each shapes the other. You are connected to your home. If you lack that connection with the place you live, you pack up and go someplace else. It happens all the time. It happened to me.
"So you're from the Big Apple, huh?" asked Mr. Ketchum in another of those strangely pseudo-psychic moments.
"Yeah, I suppose I am. Actually I'm originally from Los Angeles, "
"Ah, ‘The Land of Fruits and Nuts,'" said Mr. Ketchum good-naturedly.
"Yeah, I've heard that said," I replied, " but now I live in New York."
I didn't add that I lived alone in New York. Pathetically alone. Not that kind of alone of a person who wants to be alone, but the alone of a person who has screwed up every relationship with every good woman he has ever known; has alienated every person, of either sex, who it would be worthwhile to call a friend; has fallen to a pathetic level of existence on this planet. That was the type of alone that we're talking about here. But, as I said, I didn't mention that.
"Which edge of the country do you like the best?" he asked.
"Well, except for the fact that the weather is quite often a bitch, I much prefer the East Coast to the West."
"Hmm," murmured Mr. Ketchum, "Never been to either coast myself. We go up to Canada for a fishing trip every few years, but that's about the extent of my traveling. Maybe one of these days."
Soon, we were passing through signs of civilization--a small shopping center, then on through mainly residential areas. I could see a few taller buildings sprouting above the treetops and guessed that we must be nearing this alleged city.
"So who's your daughter auditioning?" I asked.
"Oh, I dunnow. The Skinsuckers, or something like that. They all sound the same to me," said Mr. Ketchum, "But she's convinced she's gonna find the next big band, and that Terre Haute's gonna be the next Seattle. Stick around very long and you'll hear her say that at least once or twice. ‘Terre Haute's gonna be the next Seattle.'"
"‘The next Seattle, huh?' What do you think about that?" I asked.
"I don't know that much about it myself. It's all a little over my head."
I can tell you one thing. The "next Seattle" claim was one that I had heard laid on more than one musical city over the last few years, but I have yet to see a phenomenon like that work itself out again. And to tell you the truth, I'm not sure that it ever will. The whole Seattle scene was quite a unique little period in music history. A place and a time that a bunch of scruffy non-conformists made the industry come to them. I couldn't see something like that being repeated again, much less out here in a small city in the middle of the country. To have a music scene, a vital, thriving music scene, there had to be a whole lot of bands. Bands crawling out of the woodwork. And as I looked out the window of the moving car I just couldn't see that happening. Not here.
As Mr. Ketchum drove, he glanced over at me and said good-naturedly, "Damn. You sure are a skinny one aren't ya?"
"Yeah, I suppose that I am."
"No, there ain't no ‘suppose' to it," he laughed. "We'll see if we can put some pounds on ya wile you're here."
I like the way that he laughed, and it made me laugh as well. "Sounds good," I said, "then you would succeed where my mother has always failed."
"Well sir, we sure as hell will try."
Finally we came out of the residential area and into what certainly had to be the outskirts of downtown. Now, coming as I had from New York, I had the New Yorker's tendency to view any city that didn't have gigantic buildings stacked one against the other as being, shall we say, nowhere. But I had to keep in mind that even in these days of exploding populations and paving over forests to build condos, America is still a nation of small towns. Take a cross-country drive sometime and this becomes readily apparent. America is mostly gaps, huge expanses of land punctuated by tiny clusters of people. So as I looked around, trying to put things in context, I thought to myself that although Terre Haute wasn't exactly a raging metropolis, it wasn't exactly the sticks either. I could see several taller buildings. Also I had been told that a fairly large university was housed here, so it couldn't be too small. Personally, I just hoped that a decent-sized city would mean that I could look forward to a decent hotel. With a decent bar. And that would be enough for me.next