INDIANAPOLIS -- Nearly every location on earth is just a geocode. Memories serve to transform places into something more, and the accumulation of experiences constantly shift and change them into important places. Cutting through the middle of the city on a Sunday morning on Interstate 70, I noticed how different the thing was. It seemed more imposing somehow, as if the moments that happened inside had girded and strengthened it. The bricks seem more solid and sturdy, and darker in color than I remember. It's grown bigger.
This, the third week of November, is traditionally a week for homecomings. The weather turns cold, and that's an ingrained cue to return to loaded places for a few moments, locations that might used to have been homes or might be again someday. Nearly eight months had passed since I was last in Indianapolis, since the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium, since the starless night of April 5, since eight pixels. I've been away from home for quite a while now.
For me, home is an airport hotel with no airport. Other connections to the outside are being cut off too. The Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport is surrounded by rubble and dirt and bulldozers now, and the interchange that links the Sam Jones Parkway and the I-465 spur is shut down. The green highway signs are slashed over with orange "CLOSED" banners. The five-story building just sits there, shrunken and small in its corner of High School Road.
The older lady at the desk on the morning shift remembered me. Even though it was 9:30 in the morning, she let me in. I knew there had been rooms that hadn't been used in at least two weeks. But she hesitated for a moment, mostly for pride's sake, and told me that yes, there were rooms available at that time of day. She even gave me a choice, and I asked for the fifth floor -- so I could have access to the executive lounge and its endless supply of free Froot Loops and coffee. "I have 557," she said. "Are you sure about this?"
I knew she was angling to put me in a suite, like she usually did, but 557 was fine. I didn't mind the airplane noise. "You haven't seen the weather report, I guess," she replied.
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The bench at the player piano is empty now. Guido is gone. He isn't coming back, either. "We had to retire him," the sharp young afternoon manager told me. "Whenever we had kids at the hotel, he would end up in the pool. In July, somebody snapped his neck." "That's, umm, kinda violent," I replied.
"Yeah," he said with widened eyes. "So we have him bagged up in the closet. I'll turn on the piano, any requests?"
I picked the Doobie Brothers greatest hits roll: "What a Fool Believes," "Minute by Minute," "Taking It To The Streets," and so on. I knew it was always one of Guido's favorites.
In the evening, the Outer Marker Lounge was nearly empty. It was me, and a quiet Northwest pilot filling out paperwork with a margarita. Red wine for me, and keep it coming. The barmaid wore a blue Peyton Manning replica jersey, and she was visibly upset. The highlights of the game came on the central television, and right there was the reason why.
Down by a significant margin at New England, the Colts' quarterback led a mighty fourth-quarter charge. But on the final drive, with Indianapolis down by three points and in field goal range, Manning threw an interception to Patriots cornerback James Sanders. As the catch was replayed in slow motion, she groaned. "I still love Peyton, I really do," she said. "But sometimes..."
I softened my eyes and tried to act as sympathetic as I could. I didn't tell her that my mailing address is eight miles from the stadium where the game happened, or that I didn't care.
Evening became night, and there was a sudden rush of people. It was a planeful of passengers who had been on a Delta flight to Detroit that was grounded for mechanical problems. The late hour meant that there were no more flights that day, so the airline put them up in a hotel -- my hotel. Wielding white paper drink coupons, they descended on the Outer Marker, angry and frustrated as they shared stories of broken calendars and diverted plans. Soon, as the beer and spirits flowed from vessel to glass to mouth, there was laughter.
I somehow found myself in a leadership role. As the poor barmaid struggled to keep up with food and drink orders, I fielded some of the typical questions a hotel bartender might. The bathrooms? Just down the hall. The breakfast buffet at The Landing starts at 6:30 in the morning. Pool's open until 11:30, and yeah, it's good. Laundry's on the fourth floor. Yes, the shuttle to IND runs 24 hours.
One of the men there, who'd missed a connecting flight to the Lehigh Valley ("Lafayette! Lehigh!" "Yeah, my daughter goes to Lehigh.") gave me his meal coupon to pay for my nachos, as some kind of measure of gratitude. "They should pay you as a tour guide," one tipsy lady in a sweatsuit said.
"No, I just I stay here a lot," I replied.
It was soon time to go back up to 557. And as I passed through the lobby on the way to the elevator, there she was.
She was working the desk on the night shift. She looked eight months older. Her hair was a little shorter than before, but the strands still fell over her shoulders, straight and copper-colored as a stripped telephone wire. She was typing, and it might have been my imagination but she was humming to herself. And that's when I noticed the band of symbolic ownership, left, finger four, thin and modest and set with a small stone.
"Hi," I said.
She looked up, without hesitation. "Hello."
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Room 557 overlooks the old abandoned Hertz rental car lot, the dilapidated 1 Club Gold hub grey and lonely behind it. Just beyond, I-465 southbound. There's a billboard alongside the highway for Butler basketball tickets. There are four players shown in in-game action poses. I know where the fifth one is, I thought to myself. He's thousands of miles and a time zone away. There's a website address and a phone number to call, and some copy that I couldn't read except for "Dawgs" with a "W." In a world that made more sense, the billboard wouldn't be necessary. Hinkle Fieldhouse would be sold out every game, and Butler wouldn't need to advertise. The Colts don't.
At night, I realized why the morning manager had warned me away from that room. The wind came howling out of a starless sky with gale force, just like it did on that April day. The CPIA shook and rattled. At 3 a.m., I lay awake and upright. At 4 a.m., I thought of her. I wondered what had happened, what course her summer took. I tried to imagine who he was and how he'd proposed. And then I remembered the letter.
During the season, I have my mail forwarded, and then pick it up in the spring. When I returned east on April 7, two days after the National Championship game, I sifted through a large box full of letters. There was an envelope from the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport, with its burgundy and gold stamped logo in the corner, and my Rhode Island address. I recognized the looping feminine hand.
Inside was my final divorce decree. As the plaintiff, I was required to furnish them to the defense upon receipt. I had received the papers by fax at the hotel in December, then sent them off by regular mail. I had used the CPIA as a return address, absent-midedly claimed it as my real home.
Attached to the decree was a pink post-it note. Mr. Whelliston, it read. I am so sorry that I had to open this. It was sent back to us undeliverable, and I looked up your address in our guest records because the papers looked very important. Please accept my apology for any intrusion. Underneath, her name.
What is home? It might be a return address, a hat-hook, a storage facility where you sleep, or a car in a truck stop. It can be the place that won't turn you away, no matter what you've done. Home can be a nostalgic two weeks out of the year, a respite from the 50 you spend elsewhere. For me, home is 4:15 in the morning, 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a king-size bed with two mattresses, and picture windows facing a cold, harsh wind. Home is protection from the relentless elements, a hard wall against the past and versus heartache.