At eleven o’clock the following morning, I picked up my suitcase and prepared to leave room 613 for the final time. I swung the door open to see Samantha barreling up the hallway.
Samantha appeared relatively upbeat as she shouted out, “The book!”
“The book?” I asked. “Remember, I said that you should write a book?” “Yes, I remember, but I’m on my way to the airport now and…” “I stayed up all last night thinking. Now while I don’t think I can
forgive you for conning me, I do understand your dilemma. And if your magazine is never gonna print an article about me no matter what, then I have a dilemma too.” She smiled and continued, “But a book. Don’t you see? Just because they won’t let you write articles doesn’t mean you can’t write a book.”
I hesitated, but smiled. “Wait, you actually want me to come back? And you want me to write a book?”
“Yes!” “I was on my way to the airport now.” “So what. Stay.” “I’ve already phoned the magazine. I’ve got a meeting with the
publisher this evening.” “Screw the magazine!” “I can’t… I can’t do that…. Wait… I can’t do that yet… Not yet… I’d
have to finish a book first… Line up a publisher… Then I could say ‘screw you’ to the magazine.”
“So you’ll do it?”
I took a long pause. Then I looked her right in the eye and said, “If you forgive me.”
She smiled. Then Samantha said, “Write the book.” I reached out and hugged her.
I did not sleep that night. As I stared out the hotel window I could only think about the fact that I had failed in this assignment in pretty much every way it was possible to fail it… There was nothing to salvage here.
I simply sat in front of the window, smoking cigarettes and gazing out over the magical city which I had now lost.
The first two acts of the evening turned out to be not to my liking at all. The performance artists had been downright boring—in New York I had once seen a performance artist stab himself through the thigh as part of a performance, so after that nothing anyone else had ever done seemed even remotely daring—and the band afterward had been rather poor imitators of one of my least favorite groups. Wait. If they were poor imitators of a group that I didn’t like, then that means that they didn’t sound like the group that I didn’t like and I should like them. Right? No, that doesn’t work. I really didn’t like them.
However, the final act of the evening, ‘We-Are-Endeavoring-To- Make-The-Name-Of-This-Band-The-Longest-Name-Of-Any-Band- That-Has-Yet-Given-Voice-To-A-Tune-On-The-Face-Of-This-Earth- So-Help-Me-God-Amen,’ turned out to be pretty solid. From the flippant moniker I had expected a group of lightweights, a party- time band. Yet what I encountered was a trio of serious and passionate performers.
“So, you’re gonna put them in the article then?” asked Samantha as we sat at a table waiting for Mr. Ketchum to show up for his 2:30 a.m. chauffeur duties. Steve the non- bartender had already vacated the premises and the place was empty. The odd quietness reminded me that it was slipping out of that mystical dimension of ‘nightclub’ and morphing back into simply a dingy, black-walled room. “They would be perfect for the article,” Samantha continued, “of course, their name would take up half of the article right there—which is another reason to write a book, to fit in more stuff like that. And Ian, the lead singer, is a really nice guy. He’s a delivery guy over at Hunter John’s pizza, and he’s always so sweet when he brings those pizzas around that the dormitory girls are all in love with him. But I hear that he’s one hundred percent faithful to his girlfriend. Isn’t that great?”
“It’s not exactly rock-n-roll now is it?”
“No. But it’s nice,” she said, “If you want, I’ll set up an interview for you.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
I figured that this was the time to go ahead and do it. “Well actually,” I said, “I’m headed back to New York tomorrow. So I’m not sure I’ll have a chance.”
“Tomorrow? Already you’re headed back? You don’t want to schedule a little time to interview the best band you’ve seen in a long, long time?”
“I don’t think I said that exactly.” “Yes you did.” “No, I don’t think… Look, I’m on a flight tomorrow. Oh, and they
set up a cab ride for me out to the airport, so your dad doesn’t need to bother.”
Samantha fixed me with a concentrated stare. You know, some people are able to do that. Lock right onto you and hold you there. It’s quite unnerving actually.
“What exactly is going on?” she asked. “Going on?” “Going on.” “I’m not sure I know what you mean.” “Yeah you do. But okay, I’ll say it anyway. You came here to write
an article, but the entire time you don’t seem like someone who’s here to write an article. I don’t even think I’ve seen you take a single note.”
I stammered, “I’ve been at this a long time. I can keep things in my head.”
“And now you’re leaving after just a few days?” “Well…” And then she point-blanked it: “Are you here to write an article
or aren’t you?” I shifted again in my seat. Samantha seemed to sense my distress. So she paused for a moment. She took a long breath. And then
she changed her tone as she reached across the table and placed her
hand lightly atop mine. “Tell me,” she said quietly, “Tell me why you said you were being punished to come here. Tell me: just what the hell is going on?”
Shit. All right. “Well,” I began, “the last straw was the thing the happened at the
White House, but that’s not really it.” “The White House?” “Yeah, but that’s not really it. I got in trouble at the White House,
which I guess is kind of a bad thing, but like I said that was more like the last straw.”
“The White House?”
“The real problem is that I’m in a young person’s business and I’m getting old. I’ve always been kind of out-of-control, which is acceptable in my line of work, but now that I’m getting older, recklessness is looked at differently. It’s seen as kind of pathetic. The newer guard has wanted me gone for a while now, and then I really screw up and it gives them something.”
“The freaking White House?”
“Yeah, I sort of caused an international incident, but, like I say that was more of the last straw. Not the real issue. The real issue…”
“Wait, wait, wait,” she interrupted me, “you can’t just say White House and roll on to being old. Go back. What the hell happened at the White House?”
“Well… First off, the weird thing is that I took that assignment specifically because I was trying to be good. It was this boring-assed sounding gig. And second of all, no one, including me knew that it was going to be at the White House… Oh, it doesn’t matter.”
She fixed me with that gaze and said, “Continue this story or I break your legs.”
“Okay… Well, it was a one of these diplomatic things that they do every day in Washington. It was this little get-together for this teenage pop-star from… well, from one of those countries that we’re technically allies with, but where things are kind of tense. Boring assignment. But it turns out that there was a bigger thing going on
with our president and theirs so they moved the whole shindig to the White House and everybody who was anybody was there.”
“No, not really. I didn’t want to do it. I should have switched with someone else when I found out, but I’d been on such thin ice I figured I’d just do the crap assignment then go home and try to be a good boy for the rest of my contract.”
“And then, this stupid little foreign pop star came to me and told me how incredibly nervous he was. And asked if I could get him something to calm his nerves. Now, the only ‘something’ they have at one of these things is alcohol.”
“Wait. They have booze at the White House?”
“Of course. What do you think they give those visiting dignitaries, soda pop? Anyway, I gave him some of my Scotch… And then a little more… And… Long story short: the kid went on stage obviously drunk. Somebody figured out that I was the one who gave it to him. I was, as they say, ‘detained.’… So, basically, an international incident.”
“Yeah. My bosses considered that a fairly sizable screwup. Getting a call from the Secret Service is kind of like getting a call from your kids’ principal, but multiplied by about 1,000… Anyway, I haven’t had a writing assignment since then.”
Samantha just stared at me. Then she walked over to the bar, reached behind and pulled out a bottle of something. Poured a glass, then walked back over to where I was and handed it to me.
“Why don’t you quit?” she asked, “There’s a lot of other music magazines.”
“And which one of them would hire an almost-50-year-old screwup? But I couldn’t try anyway, because I have two years left on my contract and it was made very clear to me that if I breached that contract I would be sued to the last penny. So, they’ve kept me around and made me do…. hell… they made me edit the classifieds. I’m being made an example of. But what am I gonna do? Where else
am I gonna go? At my age? I’ve just been trying to keep my head down until the powers-that-be decide to forgive me.”
Samantha looked down at my drink, then back at me. “So how does Terre Haute figure into all of this?”
“Terre Haute figures into all of this because they wanted you off of their backs without the possible bad publicity that would accompany a restraining order. The plan boils down to this: Send somebody to talk to her. Pretend there’s a story. Never print a story… That’s basically it. If she keeps calling, say that the writer wrote an unusable story and that he’s a screwup who hasn’t written a usable story in a long time and if she has a problem she should bug the writer not the magazine. Then hope she gives up and fades away. If she doesn’t fade away, then the restraining order is still an option down the road. But let’s try this first.”
Samantha’s gaze hardened on me. And I deserved it. After the attachment I had begun to feel to her and to this city, I
now felt like a traitor. I believed that I now knew what a police informant must feel when he’s on the witness stand and has to look in the eyes of the friend he was selling out in order to win a lighter sentence for himself.
After what seemed an eternity to me, Samantha spoke. “So what’s in this for you?” she asked.
“I get to be a ‘junior editor.’ Obviously, that’s a job for somebody ‘junior,’ but it could lead to being an actual editor. And I’ve got nowhere else to go. I’m damn near broke. The thought of being out on the street didn’t bother me when I was younger, but now… it scares the hell out of me. So I come here and play pretend with you, then I get the early release from the classifieds and the hope of maybe having a continuing career.”
“I see,” said Samantha. Those were the last words that she said to me that night.
The late-afternoon daylight once again streamed through the window of my hotel room. I sat upon the bed in my boxer shorts, my hair wet from a recent shower, and read a flyer for tonight’s show at Seattle. First up was a performance art duo called ‘Pliable Concrete.’ The accompanying photograph featured a young man and woman carrying elephant tusks and cans of spray paint. Next, was a band of apparently hygienically handicapped young men with greasy hair named ‘Watermelon.’ And the headliners of the evening were a band named ‘We-Are-Endeavoring-To-Make-The-Name-Of-This-Band- The-Longest-Name-Of-Any-Band-That-Has-Yet-Given-Voice-To-A- Tune-On-The-Face-Of-This-Earth-So-Help-Me-God-Amen.’
It was looking to be a fine evening at the club.
I laid the flyer down on the bed and thought again about just why I was bothering to go to the club. I had put in enough time to give the proper appearance to my assignment. I could hop on one of those commuter planes at any minute, sail out of Terre Haute, and never have to think about the place again for the rest of my miserable life.
“Why don’t you?” I asked myself aloud. There was no response from the empty room, but I thought that I had a fairly good idea as to what that response would be if it should come. The simple fact of the matter was that I kind of wanted to stay here. In fact, for some strange reason, I could picture myself sticking around here for quite a while. I was beginning to make some friends, which is something that hasn’t happened in years. And, for some reason that I couldn’t quite comprehend, I liked Terre Haute, Indiana.
I looked up at my reflection in the mirror above the dresser. “Are you on drugs?” I asked my reflection. My reflection did not answer, but it was fairly obvious by the clarity of the reflected eyes that drugs had nothing to do with my current condition. Nothing to do with it whatsoever. Instead, after a life of detachment, I was
discovering that there was just something about these people and this place.