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PAYCHECK by Joseph Grantham

Scott had a reading in St. Louis and Julia couldn’t go with him because she had to teach, so I went with him because I lived in their house and was unemployed and Scott needed company.

We drove to a gas station and Scott bought cigarettes and then we drove halfway to St. Louis and while we were driving Scott showed me his favorite albums by Nick Cave and we smoked a lot of cigarettes and then we got a room in a hotel in a place called Santa Claus, Indiana.

It was late at night and we were hungry and we drove past a Taco Bell but I didn’t want Taco Bell because once, when I was eighteen, I ate a chalupa from Taco Bell and it made me shit water while vomiting for an entire night and on into the morning.

But we found another Mexican restaurant that was open and that was where we ate.

I ordered chicken flautas and the chicken inside of the flautas was blackened and tough like beef jerky but with less flavor than beef jerky and Scott ordered tacos and he said they weren’t any good.

I asked Scott about Finnegan’s Wake and if he’d read it and, if he had, if he’d liked it.

He said he had read it and he said oh yeah he liked it.

I pointed a flauta at Scott and asked him if he could explain Finnegan’s Wake to me so that I didn’t have to read it.

Scott explained Finnegan’s Wake to me while I chewed on a charred chicken flauta and I was tired but the way he explained it to me made sense and then we got the check and I paid the bill because I felt bad for making us choose that particular Mexican restaurant over the Taco Bell, where Scott had wanted to eat, and Scott thanked me and we left and went back to our hotel.

The hotel lobby smelled like body odor and the girl behind the front desk smiled at us as we walked past her and to our room.

There were two beds in the hotel room and a television on a table and a desk.

Scott sat on a bed and looked at his laptop and I sat on a bed and looked at my laptop and on the television Willem Dafoe was interviewed by someone.

We listened to Willem Dafoe for a while and then the interview ended and another episode of the same interview program with the same interviewer came on, except that this time the interviewer was interviewing former professional baseball player Alex Rodriguez.

Alex Rodriguez was less interesting than Willem Dafoe and Scott turned off the television.

He closed his laptop and said he was going to bed but that I could stay up as late as I wanted.

He turned off his light and I closed my laptop and turned off my light.

The next morning we drove to St. Louis.

Scott’s publisher paid for our hotel room and Scott made sure they got us one near the bookstore where Scott was going to read.

We checked into the hotel and my pants were loose and I remembered that I forgot to bring my belt with me.

I asked the woman at the front desk if she knew where I could find a belt in St. Louis and she laughed and thought about it for a little while and then she told me about a Target that was far away from the hotel and the bookstore and so I decided I wouldn’t get a belt and would just pull up my pants whenever I had to.

Scott and I went to our room and set our things down and sat down on our beds and Scott looked at his laptop and I looked at my laptop and then I asked Scott if he wanted to go get a cup of coffee because I looked up a list of the best coffee places in St. Louis and I felt like having a good cup of coffee.

He laughed at me and said sure, he’d go get a cup of coffee with me if I wanted to go get a cup of coffee, and I said something about how I thought it’d be a nice way to see some of St. Louis.

I used an app on my phone to call us a car and we waited in front of the hotel and I pulled up my pants and the car pulled up in front of us.

I told Scott that we were going to the highest ranked coffee place in St. Louis and he smiled and nodded and I know he didn’t care and our driver kept driving and I noticed we were leaving the city.

Our driver drove us out of the interesting looking part of St. Louis and down a long road and finally stopped in front of a nondescript office building.

I was confused but when I looked at my phone it said that we were at the right place and I noticed that the coffee place was on the first floor of the nondescript office building.

We went inside the coffee shop and there were men wearing polo shirts tucked into khaki pants and belts with holsters on them for their cellphones and they were all sitting at tables looking at their laptops.

I ordered a coffee and asked Scott if he wanted one and he said okay, and I bought the coffees because I felt bad for dragging Scott all the way out to this boring building and we waited for ten minutes while the barista ground our beans and made us individual pour over coffees.

The coffee was okay and we went outside with it and smoked cigarettes while I called us another car.

We went back to the hotel and from the hotel we walked a few blocks to the bookstore and we decided to look around at the books in the bookstore before the reading.

In the bookstore we didn’t see much but Scott convinced me to buy a couple of Milan Kundera novels and for some reason I was surprised that Scott liked Milan Kundera.

After I bought the books we walked outside and decided to get dinner and Scott seemed nervous and like he wasn’t hungry, so we chose the first place we saw.

The first place we saw was across the street from the bookstore and it was a Mexican restaurant.

I ordered a burrito and Scott ordered a couple of tacos.

I ordered chips and salsa to share with Scott but he didn’t want any of the chips and salsa so I ate all of it and, with the burrito, it was a lot of food compared to Scott’s two tacos.

Scott and I split the bill and then we walked back across the street to the bookstore and they were setting up the reading in the children’s section.

Scott seemed unsure about the whole thing and a bookseller whose name I can’t remember greeted us and shook Scott’s hand and told Scott that he thought the prose in his new book was beautiful and Scott nodded and told the bookseller thank you.

The bookseller nodded and reemphasized how beautiful he thought the prose was in Scott’s new book and Scott smiled and said thank you.

The bookseller asked Scott if he needed a drink or anything and Scott said no but I asked the bookseller if I could have a bottle of water and he went into a closet and found one for me.

I thanked the bookseller and then he told us we should probably get things started so we followed him into the children’s section where a small group of people were gathered.

Everyone was sitting on the floor and there was a table with a tub of beer on it and Scott told me I should go get a beer and I wanted a beer and so I went to go get one.

I asked the man behind the tub of beers if the beers were free and he said of course and I took one and went back to where Scott now sat, crosslegged on the carpet.

The carpet was bright and colorful, neon greens and pinks, and covered with letters from the alphabet and trains and train tracks and places where you could play hopscotch if you wanted to play hopscotch but no one was playing hopscotch.

A couple of poets were supposed to read with Scott but one of them didn’t show up because her flight got canceled or because she said her flight got canceled and the bookseller asked Scott if he would read one of her poems to start the reading.

For some reason I thought Scott would say no but he didn’t hesitate and he said yes of course.

And then everyone quieted down and clutched their shins and Scott stood up and walked into the center of the children’s section and read the poem by the poet who didn’t show up.

I almost burst out laughing while Scott read the poem but not because the poem was bad or because Scott did a bad job reading it but because it was clear Scott didn’t write the words and they didn’t mean anything to him.

Scott finished reading the poem by the poet who wasn’t there and then he sat back down next to me and I told him good job and I drank from my can of beer.

The poet who was there stood up and walked into the center of the children’s section and introduced himself and then he told a story about the poem he was going to read and how it was about something horrible that had happened to him when he was a little boy and the story he told was a lot more interesting than the poem he read.

He did this a few more times, telling the story behind the poem that happened to be a lot more interesting than the poem and then reading the poem that seemed to be a vague, lifeless rendering of the story he’d just told.

I drank from my can of beer.

The poet finished reading and everyone clapped and I stood up and went over to the tub of beers and grabbed another beer and then went and sat back down.

Scott stood up and walked into the center of the children’s section and he read a part from his new book that I’d told him to read because I was sick of hearing him read the same part he always read at the other readings I’d seen him do.

And while he read, people laughed and cringed and suddenly got very quiet and then laughed again and shook their heads and then Scott was done reading the section from his new book.

And then he recited a poem called “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley and he put my name in the poem in the part where Riley mentions a little boy who won’t say his prayers and it made me laugh so hard that I teared up and I drank from my can of beer and stood up and walked to the back of the bookstore because I was laughing so hard.

I had a buzz from the two beers because I hadn’t had any alcohol since I’d lived with Scott and Julia and it seemed like it’d been a while.

And then the reading was over and I told Scott good job and he said thanks and that he’d recited that “Little Orphant Annie” poem so many times and that people were probably so tired of hearing him doing that.

He said that this was the last reading he was ever going to do.

He was done.

Before we left the bookstore, the bookseller stopped us and told Scott how wonderful his reading was and how he thought that Scott’s new book was beautiful and Scott thanked him for everything and we said goodnight.

Outside, a woman closer to my age than Scott’s stopped Scott and told him how much she loved his work and Scott said thank you and introduced her to me and told her that I was a writer too and I laughed and  pulled up my pants and shook her hand.

She asked us what we were doing for the rest of the night and Scott looked at me and then at her and said that we were probably just going to go back to the hotel and go to sleep because we had a long drive back to West Virginia the next day.

She gave me her phone number and said that if we wanted to get breakfast the next morning before our drive, we should text her and she’d take us to a good place.

We thanked her and said goodnight and started walking back to the hotel.

Scott told me he was sorry about wanting to go back to the hotel and that if I wanted to go out drinking with the woman I should.

I laughed and said it was okay and that I wanted to go back to the hotel too but that I wanted to get a cup of coffee and maybe a snack to bring back to the room.

We walked to a Starbucks but it was closed and we walked to a cookie store but they didn’t sell coffee and then a man approached us and told us about how St. Louis was a racist city and how he was just visiting from Ohio and he had cancer and all of the white people he’d talked to seemed afraid of him but not us.

We told him we were sorry about that, about the racism, and he told us again that he had cancer and could we spare some change.

But we didn’t have any cash or change in our pockets and we told him that and he looked annoyed and walked away and said something to himself about how this cancer wasn’t going to cure itself.

And then we found a Whole Foods behind our hotel.

I got a coffee and then we browsed the snacks for a while and Scott picked out a big bag of chips and I was picking out a bunch of individual cookies to put in a box but then Scott suggested that I pick a box of cookies that was already prepackaged, so I put back all of the individual cookies and threw the box in the garbage and then grabbed a box of the prepackaged cookies and we paid and brought everything back to the hotel room.

Scott sat on his bed and I sat on my bed and he shared his chips with me and I shared the box of cookies with him.

He asked if I wanted to watch a short animated documentary about the country singer Johnny Paycheck and I did so he brought his laptop over to my bed and we sat there on the bed with the laptop between us and we ate chips and cookies and I learned about how Johnny Paycheck once shot a guy in the face and how if you wanted to quit your job the best way to do it was to tell your boss to take the job and shove it.

Then we got into our beds and went to sleep and at seven in the morning we left the hotel.

We drove back to Beckley, stopping only for gas and cigarettes and crackers and chips and beef jerky and candy and cigarettes and for most of the drive we listened to country music and Scott told me about each singer and each band and each song.

When we got back to the house Julia was making dinner and we sat down at the table in the kitchen and then we all ate dinner and told Julia about the trip.

And Scott and I thought about it and decided that the trip probably wasn’t worth it for Scott’s publisher or for Scott but that we still managed to have a good time.

And Scott said it was the last time he was going to do something like that and then he gathered everyone’s plates and cups and rinsed off all of the dishes in the sink and put them in the dishwasher.

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