Zerchi wandered to his chair and sank into it. “A defense alert. Why?”
Joshua shrugged. “There’s talk about an ultimatum. That’s all I know, except what I hear from the radiation counters.”
I have reread this particular passage and the entire book surrounding it about every other year since my father first gave me the book in high school. The above exchange takes place in the third act of Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the wake of nuclear apocalypse, the center of the known world becomes the southwestern United States. The reimagined atlas includes places like the Empire of Denver, the Kingdom of Chihuahua. Laredo and Texarkana. The Utah. So-called New Rome hovers somewhere around present day St. Louis.
And Spokane. It’s only a brief mention, a small detail in an already richly rendered landscape. But I digested these words before Spokane was even on my radar, back in the days when I thought it was pronounced Spo-CANE. Back before I should have had an impression formed, but I did, from this little mention in this little book. Spokane then conjured up images of flat yellow land and dirty yellow skies. A newly brimming settlement after years of nuclear fallout, in danger of being razed again by man’s folly.
When Spokane’s latest hot take news bite broke (you know the one), my feeds were full of people from Eastern Washington doing a lot of facepalming, mixed in with some knowing winks of Only in Spokane. When my mother, my friends, even a job interview I was on last week brought it up (“You used to live there. What do you think?”), I said something similar. Something like, it makes sense that it happened there. It could only happen there. I’ve been trying to figure out why and how. A traditionally white and conservative town, beginning to see over the hump to the promise land of artsy liberal progressiveness…ideas of in-betweenness…identity struggles…I don’t know. I’m still working on it. But the point is that this piece of information is simply another puzzle piece that adds to the picture of that strange city in the Northwest. It can go in the same category at the little throwaway mention in Canticle. On Spokane’s Wikipedia page, it will someday go under “Notable Events,” or maybe “References in Popular Culture.”
Terre Haute crops up in popular culture more often than logic would dictate. In season one of Mad Men, human dynamite Joan Holloway clenches her beautiful teeth and spits out the proper spelling of Terre Haute to an underling (“Terre Haute has two R’s, and an A, and an E at the end”). Pawnee was founded by a man from Terre Haute riding in on an ox. In one scene of my latest binge favorite, Broad City, disgusting sidekick Matt Bevers gives an impromptu summer camp rap that includes, among other things, the line: “I’m Matthew Bevers / and I’m from Terre Haute / I like being on land / and I get sick on a boat.”
I rolled my eyes and laughed a little, because what are the odds?
I also made a joke because Bevers is fat and obnoxious, and everyone knows I have what we can nicely call complex feelings about living in Indiana and this town in particular.
I also thought to myself, of course.
Maybe not everyone keeps track of every passing reference to their hometowns in the media, but I stack the stuff up like poker chips. Artifacts, mentions, nods, gestures: it’s all part of what obsesses me about place. Cultural consciousness, looking for grains of truth in stereotype, the distance between reality and perception. Connecting the dots to form the picture. When I go back and read A Canticle for Leibowitz, it gives me a ripple of recognition, a warmth in my belly. I have some inside knowledge that perhaps other readers don’t pick up on. When offputting Bevers says he’s from Terre Haute, on whose empty main street I currently sip tea and type, I laugh to myself and say, You bet he is. I get it, and not everybody does. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
It’s a complex place to sit, too. Writing about place interrogates what people already know about where you’re from. Like any city, Spokane has cultural markers. It exists in the national consciousness in ways you have to reckon with. You can’t sweep it away – let’s just focus on the positive – but you can’t pretend it’s the whole story either. Terre Haute exists in the ether as the go-to name when TV needs an Anyplace, America, with just the right touch of retro sheen. I wonder if the influence works both ways, that these mentions and references add up and effect the way a place grows and views itself. That it’s all embraced to some degree. Of course, it could mean nothing – what the bored and unholy mind of some Hollywood producer thinks of flyover country. But I prefer it the meaningful way. I like to imagine that it’s all a conversation we’re having, and the way places exist in imagination matters for all of us. The stories feed the soil, and the land births oddities that take your breath away.
There’s a chance we’re moving to Grand Rapids at the end of summer. I hope putting it on the Internet doesn’t jinx it, but as I dream about the job that would bring us there and what that life might look like, what drifts alongside is the cultured voice of one Bruce Campbell, also known as Ash from those delightfully trashy Evil Dead movies. Here’s what he says about his beloved shotgun, also known as his boomstick:
“The twelve-gauge double-barreled Remington, S-Mart’s top of the line. You can find this in the sporting goods department. That’s right, this sweet baby was made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Retails for about a hundred and nine, ninety five. It’s got a walnut stock, cobalt blue steel, and a hair trigger.”
What does it matter? Who knows. But right now, it’s the only thing I know.