And now here I am on the tiny plane at the regional airport in Terre Haute, Indiana. We’re waiting to taxi out to the runway. I’ve had my last cigarette until my layover in Chicago, and I’m staring out the window, checking out the oppressively bright surroundings.
A book? A friggin’ book? Was this girl that deluded? I glanced out the window at the outskirts of Terre Haute, a city
which I could quite frankly say that I had grown attached to over the past few days. As I gazed at the green trees at the edge of the landing field my thoughts turned to Samantha and her idea for a book.
A book would definitely qualify as a breach of my contract. A breach of my contract would spell death for me within the publishing world. And I knew that death in the publishing field would be the death of me.
Besides, I reasoned, without the publicity from the magazine article what would ever happen? The Terre Haute music scene would never take off. And who would ever want to publish a book about a nowhere music scene happening in an Indiana town which no one had ever heard of? And why would anyone waste his time writing one? Not me, I can tell you that. I’m going back to New York.
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.
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. “What?” “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?”
“Yeah.” “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.” “What?” “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. “Yep.” “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.
Though I parked myself on my usual stool at Seattle, I wasn’t really into the bands this evening. Too much on my mind. Luckily John invited me out to his van and after a little time out in the parking lot and after a while all of those “things on my mind” didn’t seem to matter.
As John and I sat in the van—excuse me, truck—there was suddenly a knock at the door. We were both silent. I’m not sure why. Maybe we thought that by remaining silent we wouldn’t be caught. But after a moment the knock came again.
“Um…” began John, “who is it?”
“You know damned well who it is,” came Samantha’s muffled voice from outside the van.
“My sister-in-law?” John asked. “No.” “My sister-in-law?” I asked, even though I have no sister-in-law. “Open the door!” the voice insisted. “Wait! Wait!” said John, “is it my mother’s half-sister’s lesbian
lover’s ex-fiancee’s sister-in-law?” The door was yanked open from the outside, revealing
Samantha trying to look stern. I said, “I can explain this.” “Shut up,” she said as she climbed into the van and closed the
door behind her. “You see,” I continued, “John here is a collector of beer cans.
Right John?” “That’s right. Got a big ol’ collection at home. Hell, some of them
cans are worth a lot of money.” “Shut up,” she said again, “and give me one of those things.” To
say that this request surprised John would be an understatement, but he happily reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a beer for Samantha. There were plenty more left. There was no danger of a shortage any time soon.
“A beer can collection,” said Samantha, “yeah, I’ll bet you do.” And she opened up her beer. “Do you guys know what happens to me if having beers in my parking lot turns into a thing? This club is for minors. And I get crucified. I’ve got enough problems at the moment. So, please don’t let that happen.”
“Got it,” we both replied in unison.
“Good,” she said, then took a big swig of her beer, “Good.” Then she set the beer down and stepped out of the van.
“What the hell was that?” I asked John.
“I don’t know,” said John in his Hoosier accent. And the way that ‘I don’t know’ was pronounced in that accent became a favorite of mine. It was pronounced as if it were one word without consonants. It sounded like “I-oh-oh.” Later, I would become proficient at pronouncing it, or rather I should say not pronouncing it, but for now I just smiled at the way it was spoken by John. I lit up a cigarette and John and I sat drinking in silence.
At three a.m., I found myself once again gazing out of the window of room 613. I was poised at my keyboard, the blue-gray glow of the screen casting a surreal light through the darkened room. I felt like I wanted to write something about Phil D., but the words wouldn’t come.
The view of Terre Haute seemed to beckon to me. There was something out there in the night of this Indiana city that just pulled my attention away from what it was that I was supposed to be doing.
Something pulling me.
So I allowed myself to be pulled. I looked out the window and abandoned pretending that I was about to write something, abandoned my futile task. As I gazed out the window, all was still below me. I suppose that this was the way that things were at three o’clock in the morning in most normal places throughout the world. All quiet. All sedate. All peaceful. It was a state that I was generally unaccustomed to seeing in a city. I had been living in New York for so long that I had forgotten that there were cities which did sleep. I was in one such city right now.
Then the phone rang. A 3 am call. Always interesting to ponder who that might be.
It was Samantha.
“So, Phil D. is okay. Turns out this is like his 5th heart attack. Apparently, they’re getting used to seeing him at the hospital. The nurses talked about giving him a discount card or something.”
“Well that’s good to hear.”
“Yes it is. And I’m gonna let you go because after tonight I am dog tired.”
I hung up the phone and my gaze was once again drawn to the cityscape out my window.
The really disturbing part of a sleeping city is that the peacefulness really gives a person a chance to think. To think about all of the things that one really did not want to think about. I always refer to the daytime as “static time” because there is so much human activity going on during the daytime that it keeps a person’s brain occupied, as if filled with static. A big part of me thinks that maybe that’s really what helps most people hold it together. The static keeps them going. I think that most people really don’t want to stop and think about the life that is streaking past them. Stopping and thinking about it can be a downright disturbing thing to do. I know. I do it far too often. But when a person’s mind is occupied, the time can just pass by with little notice. And that is, for most people, a blessing indeed. So most of them live their lives there in the static time, keeping the worst of the thoughts at bay and making it possible to keep going until the end.
So I looked out at the Terre Haute night. And as I gazed out across the city a chill passed through my body, a chill which signaled that an end was near.
Samantha had told me about this man Phil D. — the guy who had played the cello at Elvis’ last concert — and he was the headliner for tonight. Okay, cool. But when I saw him approach the stage I thought it must be some kind of a joke. The man looked to be near death. Turns out that he was in his 60s, but when I had first seen him in the club a few nights prior, I would have placed his age in the 80s. He was actually younger than my dad, but looked a hell of a lot older.
I don’t suppose that I have to tell you that someone like that is not someone you usually see mounting the stage at a club. As he hobbled toward the stage, I looked down at Samantha’s written program and read that in addition to the Elvis thing, Phil D. had played for many years in the Indianapolis Philharmonic and that he was a music professor at the university.
What? There was obviously some sort of joke going on here. But then it happened: he started to play. You see, while getting
up to the stage he looked as if he was about to collapse, but once he started playing that cello it was as if someone else had taken over that frail body. And damn, I have never seen anything quite like it, and I’ve seen a lot.
So Samantha had been right about this. Phil D. was an artist worth watching. I couldn’t imagine anyone in the music industry actually even attempting to sell something like this. But again, damn.
Phil’s backing band rocked (and he probably had grandchildren their age) and jammed out some tunes that would have been pretty darned good on their own, but atop the guitar and drums were these amazing, swooping cello parts. Just amazing parts. The kind of cello parts that give you chills.
And atop that, to my amazement, some fantastic tortured vocals. Hell, if he had just been a singer, he would have been a singer to catch my attention. But add that to everything else… I was in awe.
And after all these years in the music business, “awe” is not something I tend to feel anymore.
It was obvious that I was not the only one feeling it. I looked around the room and realized that he was the reason that this place was packed. He had a large contingent of fans in a wide age range, though most of them were college-aged and I assumed were probably his students. And they were fixated. The members of the other bands gave him their absolute full attention. The punk kids seemed fascinated. Everyone’s attention was on this frail little man who was such a powerhouse performer. Everyone’s eyes were glued to that stage. It was beautiful.
And then the jerkwad showed up.
Apparently, the annoying councilman and his small band of protesters had decided to be a bit more aggressive. Right in the middle of Phil D.’s set, they came marching through the club.
And get this: They were carrying torches! Friggin’ torches! I kid you not. Through the middle of a commercial building… Torches! I assume that the effect was meant to be like the angry townsfolk of old, some sort of symbolic gesture there which I’m sure the councilman thought was somehow significant and appropriate, but, Jesus Christ! TORCHES!
As they marched, they waved their torches and chanted “Not! In! Our! Town! Not! In! Our! Town!” Whatever the hell that was supposed to mean.
At this disruption, the band stopped playing — obviously, torches inside small confined spaces can certainly have that effect — and the councilman quickly jumped at the opportunity and started in on his speech, which, incidentally, he delivered to the cameraman who had followed them into the club and not to the people actually in the club.
“This place is a corrupting place. It is full of violence, and drugs, and who knows what else. I have lived in this city my entire life, I am proud to say. And I can tell you that this place is not something that the people of Terre Haute want here. Not! In! Our! Town!”
The room had a fairly high ceiling, but I, along with several other people in the club, couldn’t help notice how close the councilman’s torch was getting to the ceiling tiles as he waved the torch around.
And just as the councilman was about to continue his rant, a voice — a big, powerful voice — a voice like the Voice Of God came thundering out of the club’s speakers.
It was Phil D. And Phil D. was pissed! “MALCOLM!” shouted Phil D. through the P.A. system. The councilman, obviously startled by the Voice Of God turned
and saw, apparently for the first time, the artist whose performance he had interrupted.
“Dad?” he squeaked. “What in THE HELL are you doing?” Phil D. demanded. “Dad?” “Yes. And I asked you a question Malcolm. What the hell are you
doing?” “Dad… what are you… don’t you know what goes on here? What
are you doing here?” “Music goes on here. Music is what happens. And Music is what
I’m doing here… What are you doing here? Are we perhaps witnessing some ridiculous stunt designed to get you re-elected to the council? Is that what you’ve turned into? Is that what my son has turned into? A cheap, sensationalist, political HACK?“
The councilman was obviously rattled. With a weak point toward Samantha he squeaked out, “She invited us.”
“What?” shouted Samantha. “I invited you to come in and watch some bands, not to come in and act like….” and here, apparently, Samantha realized that there was a camera pointed at her, “Not to come and disrupt a concert that people have paid to see.”
Phil D. sprang to his feet — and through his furious anger you could see a quick wince at the pain that springing had caused him — and he shouted, “GET! OUT! Right now, OUT!”
Now, one could suspect that the councilman had probably not been spoken to by his father in that tone for 30 years or so, but it was obvious from his reaction that he most certainly had heard the tone before. He turned, and slinked out of the club, his bewildered fellow protesters following along behind him.
There was a pin-drop silence in the club as this happened. And when the councilman had made his way out the door, the crowd, in basically one synchronized motion turned their collective heads from the doorway back to Phil D.
There was an awkward moment. Then Phil D. clutched his chest and collapsed to the floor.
After a few beers John and I made our way back into Seattle. John went off to find his bandmates, as they were up next, and I sat watching a band called Egregious. Now, if you don’t know, “egregious” is a fancy word which is defined as describing something that is bad in a very remarkable way.
Turns out, this band was aptly named. They were obviously going for something different — the pedal steel guitar run through distortion and layers of effects was certainly interesting… but it was also pretty bad.
Next up was Insomniac Trash. My new friend John slapped me on the back as he passed me on the way to the stage. I’ve already mentioned both his strength and my weakness, so when he slapped me, I was damned near thrown to the ground.
Well, I hate to say this about my new good friend John’s band, but Insomniac Trash was your typical, generic blues bar band. Now, like most blues bar bands, they were all very good musicians and their playing was incredibly tight. It was just something that I’d heard a hundred million times before. I mean, honestly, once you’ve heard one 10-minute electric blues guitar solo you’ve heard them all, haven’t you? Yet your blues bar bands keep on playing them over and over, and I would imagine that they will continue to do so until the end of time.
Personally, I prefer to hear a bunch of talentless yahoos who sound absolutely terrible but are at least attempting to do something unique, rather than hear just one more generic blues lick. Case in point: Although I thought that Egregious was bad, I preferred listening to their train wreck rather than being bored by the talented but generic Insomniac Trash.
When, after two seemingly endless encores, Insomniac Trash finally left the stage, my new friend John slapped me on the back again and invited me to come have another look at his truck.
My first look at his truck had not yet worn off, so I respectfully declined his offer. It would look bad, I think, if Samantha found me passed out in her parking lot.