The banks of the Wabash…
John and I kind of went back and forth that evening between the truck and the club. Our last trip out was during the last band’s performance. They weren’t doing it for me, and John’s truck was turning out to be a rather special place.
I don’t know how much time had gone by, but as we sat there shooting the breeze, the truck door was yanked open without so much as a knock. We both jumped. And there was Samantha again, this time with her friend Gina in tow. Samantha introduced Gina as the smartest person she had ever met, then she grabbed one of John’s beers and handed it to the quiet girl. I think Gina just took the beer because it had been thrust at her. I don’t think she had any interest in it. She also coughed quite a bit as she came near me, which lead me to extinguish my cigarette although it was only half-smoked.
For a moment things seemed a bit awkward as the four of us sat drinking beer—or at least three of us were drinking beer—in silence. Finally, John broke the ice. Naturally. John was the type of guy who had been specifically designed in the cosmic plan of things to break ice.
“No photos!” he called out.
“No photos! If my wife sees photos of me out drinking in my
truck with a couple of girls, I will no longer have a wife!”
“Don’t worry,” said Samantha with a laugh, “Nothing’s gonna
happen that your wife would need to worry about.”
“Oh I don’t know,” he replied, “for I have found that the ladies
are, without exception, uncontrollably drawn to my manly physique.”
At which point we all started to laugh like crazy. That little van —truck—shook with our laughter. For myself, I had a mental picture of hordes of women, women of all ages, clinging to John madly. The image was so absurd when applied to a guy like him that I nearly split my side open with laughter.
After that we talked a bit about the Terre Haute music scene. Rather, Samantha talked about the Terre Haute music scene. You really had to admire the ambitious plan she had for the place. And once again, as her father had predicted, I heard her say that it was going to be the next Seattle.
At some point it was Gina who told me that Terre Haute was French for “high ground.” For a while I watched her. I noticed that she didn’t seem overly comfortable here. She didn’t say a whole lot, so I got the definite feeling that she was one of those people who feels a bit out of place in a social situation. I would imagine that had I known her as well as Samantha knew her, then she would probably talk to me quite freely. In the company of folks she didn’t know, however, she preferred to fade into the woodwork and let the more outgoing go for it.
Samantha, on the other hand, had absolutely no problems with either talking to relative strangers or to getting drunk with them. I suppose that when you’re sure of yourself then you’re sure of your opinions, and perhaps you blindly believe that everyone around you should have the benefit of your wisdom.
But I think I may be getting a little too psychological here. Maybe it’s because I was drunk.
At some point the conversation turned to the Wabash. John had some vague recollection that there was some once-upon-a-time famous song about the Wabash. Samantha also thought so. She seemed to think that in school they had read about some famous guy who turned out to be a communist writing a song about the Wabash. It was Gina who provided the answers—apparently Samantha had things so screwed up that Gina couldn’t help but to jump into the conversation and straighten things out. First, the song about the Wabash was the state song On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away — which John interrupted to comment was a damned long title for a song and Samantha commented that she didn’t know that there was a state song — and it was written by Paul Dresser, who was the brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser. The Terre Haute communist she was thinking of was not a communist, he was Eugene V. Debs,
who was a labor leader and a socialist before socialism and communism were taken to mean the same thing.
Even though I was quite drunk, I remember this conversation clearly because Gina seemed to think it was quite important.
Smart people are like that, I guess.
The Wabash, from what I gathered from the song title, was a river. Apparently it wasn’t too far from our present location so John got it into his head that we should walk there.
“Can you walk right now?” I asked him.
“Yes, I can walk. I can walk a straight line. I can also put my finger on my nose. Watch.” So to demonstrate that he could pass the standard intoxication test, he extended his arm with a pointed finger, then bent his arm at the elbow and touched his finger… to his ear.
“Damn!” he laughed. Then he started toward the door. “That’s it. We’re going.” At which point he opened the door and started shooing all of us outside.
Samantha ducked backward to insure that, should there be anyone outside, they wouldn’t see her with a beer in her hand. She finished off the beer, then stepped out. Gina followed suit, although Gina just set her beer down rather than drinking the rest of it, assuming that she had consumed any of it at all.
John rifled around in the back of the truck until he found a backpack. A pink one. With little cartoon teddy bears on it. Gina and I both laughed at the sight of this big, burly man slinging a little girl’s backpack over his shoulder.
“Okay, we’re ready,” she said.
“Lay on McDuff,” said John.
To which I started. “What did you say?” I asked.
“I said, ‘lay on McDuff.’ Why? Ain’t you ever heard somebody
quote Shakespeare before?”
“And damned be him who first cries ‘hold enough,’” I replied. “Damned straight!”
We walked a few blocks, even taking a “shortcut” through the
courthouse grounds, the stately golden dome towering over us.
We proceeded through this shortcut, emerging from beneath the shadow of the courthouse. After we had walked a block more, I whined, “I’m not seeing any rivers here.”
“We’re almost there,” said Samantha, “just keep your pants on.”
So we walked on for a few more minutes until we entered a large open area which I was to learn was a park. In the dark it was a little hard to make out just where we were, but I could tell that there was empty space directly in front of us. In the distance, I could see a line of trees silhouetted against the sky. Yet for some reason, there didn’t seem to be anything between here and there. It was odd. As we walked on, it eventually became clear why there was nothing in view. It was because there was indeed a river there.
“See!” shouted John. His voice shattered the still night air. This was instantly answered by a chorus of shushes from all three of us.
“Oh, sorry,” he whispered. “But see, there is a river here. Now ain’t there?”
“Okay, I admit it,” I said, “There is indeed a river here.” “Damned straight,” he said. Then he smiled and sighed.
That pretty much summed up everyone’s feelings I think: a smile
and a sigh. We stood there on the bank of the Wabash River and just were. I tilted my head upward. Stars. I could see a sky full of stars. That was something that one could never do in New York, so when I go someplace where I can actually see stars at night it does tend to affect me.
I lit up a cigarette and took a deep, satisfying drag as I stared at the stars. Nobody said a word; and that was perfect. I was here. I was with people who I was beginning to think of as friends. I stared up at the stars and a strange feeling crept over me. It was a feeling that I hadn’t felt in a while. My life had been so utterly worthless for so seemingly long that I had trouble recognizing the feeling when I felt it. Yet there it was.
I wanted to live.
I smiled and took another deep drag on my cigarette. I sat down on the grass on the banks of the Wabash and puzzled over my feeling.
Eventually, John said something. He said to me, “How about a brewski?” and he reached inside the pack.
Samantha grinned and said, “You asshole,” as she punched John in the arm, “I wondered why you were carrying that stupid pink backpack.”
“Hey, don’t make fun of my daughter’s taste in backpacks.” Samantha took one of the beers and said, “I’m pretty sure that this is illegal.”
“Yeah,” said John, “but it’s worth it. If we get caught, we spend a few hours in jail ‘til somebody bails us out. ‘Til then, this is worth the risk.”
He was right. It was worth the risk. Although I declined the beer —I think I had already had more than my usual limit this evening—I was still enjoying a buzz as we sat there by the gently rolling water.
Gina sat down beside me. She breathed in deeply of the night air. “This is nice,” she said, “I’ve never been here at night. It’s nice.”
“Hey G,” said Samantha, “remember when we used to ride our bikes down here?”
“That was great. Racing around here. We should do that again.” “My bike’s still out in the garage.”
John cut in, “Deming Park’s better for bike riding.” The
comment drew objections from both of the females. There then followed a debate on the virtues of these two different parks. For my part, this debate was just a gentle background noise as I stared up at the starry sky above. I was too busy pondering my own strange feelings to be taken in by a bicycling debate. Besides, I couldn’t really make an informed decision on that topic anyway.
Somewhere along the line in the bicycling controversy someone made some comment about nuclear war. As I said, I wasn’t really following the thread of what was being said, so I have no idea how the conversation got there.
“Well, in case of nuclear war,” said John, “you proceed immediately to the TV station.”
“Why’s that?” asked Samantha.
“They’ve got a fallout shelter there.”
“A fallout shelter,” John continued, “down in the basement. It’s
the weirdest thing. My wife works there and she told me about it. Then one night she was working real late and when I came by to pick her up she asked me if I wanted to see it. Of course I did! So we snuck downstairs and it was like something out of a movie or something. The basement is huge, but it’s old. The floors aren’t even paved or anything. And all around they’ve got these drums of supplies all stacked up there. And I’m looking around this creepy cavelike place with these stores of supplies and I’m thinking, ‘Man, if this is where we have to live after a nuclear war, I believe I’d rather just be burned to a crisp and have it over with.’ That place gave me nightmares.”
“Are you telling the truth?” asked Samantha.
“As God is my witness. It’s like something out of a scary movie. Like that’s the place where the maniac stores all of the dismembered bodies. Only it’s bigger and stocked full of supplies. Creepy.”
“So that’s where we’re supposed to go in a nuclear war?” asked Samantha. “How are we supposed to know that? I don’t remember them telling us that in school. Maybe it’s just the rich people who know about it. Maybe it’s one of those kind of deals.”
“Hey, the rich people can have the place as far as I’m concerned,” John continued, “Like I said, I’d rather burn to a crisp.”
“Can we talk about something else?” Gina asked.
“Yes ma’am, we can,” said John, “We can talk about throwing our skinny friend here into the Wabash. Sort of an initiation-type deal.”
“An initiation-type deal?” I asked.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather stay uninitiated.” “What? It ain’t like it’s the middle of winter or anything. The
water’s not gonna kill you. Can you swim?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I swim very well actually, but that isn’t the point.”
“The point? The point?” John laughed. “I’ll decide what the point is to this particular drunken conversation.” He then stood up and trotted over to the water’s edge. He pulled off his shoes and socks and waded into the Wabash.
“The water’s just right,” he said. He then bent down to splash water at us. After a few splashes, which failed to reach us there on the bank, he lost his balance and fell backward into the water. Naturally, we all laughed, John included.
“That does it,” he said, “You all think this is so funny, you’re all coming in for an initiation.” He then leapt out of the water and charged us. We all tried to scatter. The first one he caught was Samantha. He easily picked her up and carried her to the water. She was alternately giggling and calling him an asshole until he dropped her on her back into two feet of water.
“You asshole!” she shrieked through her giggles. She tried to hit him, but he was already out of the water and headed for me. I thought I could get away from him, but he proved to be the quickest fat man I have ever seen. He latched onto me and, just as he had done to Samantha, he picked me up, carried me to the water and dropped me in.
The water was cold, but it felt good. Refreshing. As I came up for air I looked back at the bank where Gina had put herself a safe distance from John. I guess he recognized this, plus the fact that she was still sober, and gave up any attempt to chase her. Instead, he fell back in the water, creating a huge splash.
So we splashed around in the water a bit. There in the river at night. It was fun. Samantha tried to dunk me, but I was too slippery for her. I managed to slip around behind her, grab her around the waist and dunk her.
As she came back up from below the water, I still gripped her by the waist. And as she stood, laughing and running her hand through her wet hair, I suddenly felt… well… I suddenly felt attracted to her. Where the hell had that come from? Luckily that thought was only
an instant before my rational mind realized what a very bad idea that was, and I released her.
She immediately spun around, grabbed me by the shoulders and forced me under the water.
After that, we all just stood there in the water, smiling at one another.
“You know,” said Samantha finally, “they say that alcohol and the river don’t mix.”
“Of course they do,” said John.
“Nope. It’s exactly the kind of story you see on the news.” “Exactly!” exclaimed John, “Why do you think you see it on the
news? Because everybody knows that it’s fun to drink and get in the river. Okay, so about half the people drown, but that doesn’t mean that it ain’t fun.”
Eventually, we got out of the river and walked back to the parking lot of Seattle. I’m sure that to anyone who saw us, we were a comical sight. At least three of us were: soaked from head to toe, walking down the street in the middle of the night. Only John had dry shoes. Mine and Samantha’s left incriminating wet tracks wherever we went.
That had been a good evening.