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Home > Publications > Quill > 'Payload': An Original Short Story By Novelist Jess Walter



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Wednesday, June 14, 2017
'Payload': An Original Short Story By Novelist Jess Walter

Journalists Not Being Journalists

By Jess Walter

Note: This original short story by author and former journalist Jess Walter comes as part of Quill’s “Journalists Not Being Journalists” series, encouraging creative pursuits by journalists outside the daily deadline. Walter first read it in April at the Pie & Whiskey event during the annual Get Lit Festival in Spokane, Washington. It is a work of fiction.

***

Maybe they’re right.

Maybe we all need someone to blame.

Maybe it is the Mexicans’ fault the factories have closed and you can’t go to your old doctor and kids are rude and someone broke the passenger window of my brother-in-law’s pickup truck. Hell, maybe the Islamic Brotherhood broke Duane’s window and stole three bucks in meter change.

And maybe we should find someone to blame too — for the election, for the death of democracy and American ideals and language, and, you know, the planet.

****

For a while, I blamed my dipstick brother-in-law Duane, my wife’s sister’s husband, and a model of made-in-America jackassery. I knew it wasn’t fair blaming him, but maybe fairness is in the eye of the beholder now. You know, like truth?

But then I found something else to blame: Duane’s Dodge Ram pickup.

Duane’s Dodge Ram pickup is covered in flag-and-eagle bumper stickers. Duane’s Dodge Ram pickup has a chrome grill that looks like the villain’s chest-plate from a Mad Max movie. Duane’s Dodge Ram has a double-extended cab and a truck-bed tool box, two extra back tires, a turbo 385 horsepower diesel engine capable of 900 pound-feet of torque, a max payload of 6,700 pounds and the ability to tow, should Duane feel the urge, 31,000 pounds of assault rifles or demolition derby cars or dead elk.

Duane doesn’t haul anything, though. Duane lives in the suburbs and manages a swimming pool supply store. He mostly drives his massive truck to work and, on weekends, to my house, where he drinks my whiskey and cheerfully tells me all the things his truck could do if he wanted. “I could pull down a full-grown Doug fir,” he said.

“Like, for a Christmas tree?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I could grate a road.”

These were the conversations Duane and I had before the election. During the election, we talked about the people Duane insisted were “ruining the country … the ‘letists.”

“Who?”

“You know, the ‘letists. The government, professors, teachers union, lame-stream media.”

I reminded him that I was a newspaper copy editor, a member of the media, that I had a master’s degree from Northwestern and that he made more money than I did selling air mattresses and chlorine.

But it never matters what I say. Duane just smiles and says, “Aw, I don’t mean you, Jay. I like you.”

And honestly, I like Duane. When my daughter had an eating disorder, there was no more supportive person than Duane. When my father died, the first person to the house was Duane.

No, I liked Duane. But I despised his truck.

I live in Spokane, Washington, a bluish city ringed by reddish suburbs, and the farther out you get from the city center, the more you see these giant trucks. After the election, I found myself glaring at these trucks as they rumbled up to red lights, giving them the bird as they came barreling up aggressively in my rearview.

And I suppose that’s why I took a four-iron to Duane’s passenger window that day.

I still can’t quite explain how it happened. I was driving down Division Street and saw Duane’s truck at a gun shop, and the next thing I knew, my trunk was open, and I was holding a golf club and Duane’s alarm was going off and that’s when I reached in through the broken window, grabbed some quarters, jumped in my Subaru Outback and drove off.

****

Duane got the window fixed. He muttered something about gangs and drugs and never suspected what I’d done.

But by then, I was obsessed with separating my sweet-stupid brother-in-law from his 12-miles-to-the-gallon compensating for some of his anatomy rolling metaphor.

A few weeks later I was driving home from work when I saw two state troopers staging a DUI sting in a grove of trees on a stretch of highway where there had been some accidents.

As I drove past, the whole thing played out in my head — not like a plan, but like a dream I’d had, or a memory of something that had already happened.

I pulled out my cell phone and called Duane. We small talked. And then I suggested we meet for a drink at a bar near there. He said, “When?” I said, “How about now?” He said, “That’s what I like about you, Jay.”

He showed up within 10 minutes. Inside, I bought round after round of Duane’s go-to drink: Jim Beam. Rocks. “Two more bourbons here.”

We drank whiskey and talked about our daughters (mine was doing much better; his was turning out for the volleyball team). We drank whiskey and talked about our jobs (the newspaper was having another round of layoffs; he was expecting a big summer at the pool-supply store). We drank and talked politics (Duane thought we should “teach Kim Jong Un what crazy really looks like”), and it was at that point I got up to go to the bathroom and spilled my drink on Duane’s left sleeve, the one I imagined the state trooper leaning through the window to smell later.

We had five each. I stumbled leaving the table.

“How about I drive you, Jay?” he asked, as I knew he would. “We can come back and get your car tomorrow.”

We crossed the parking lot and approached my enemy, the Dodge Ram 3500 pickup, chrome teeth gleaming at me. I swung open the heavy door, stepped on the running board, climbed up and in. The front seat was a leather sofa.

Duane turned onto the highway. Kenny Chesney played on his truck stereo. Any qualms I had went away with Kenny Chesney.

As we drove past the grove of trees I reached out and grabbed the wheel. “Watch out!” I yelled. “Dog!”

We veered into the other lane, tires making a sudden chirp, before Duane corrected. “Did we hit it?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “it got away.”

From the grove of trees, a pair of headlights.

“Uh-oh,” Duane said.

And was I proud that my dark plan worked, that one of those state troopers came thundering out of the trees, his light bar going off, siren whelping?

Yeah. Yeah, I was. I was a little bit proud.

****

“Ah shit,” Duane said. He pulled over. “Shit. Shit.”

Duane doesn’t really believe in science, otherwise I might’ve pointed out the relativity of time, and that the slowest time in the universe occurs when you’re sitting in your car waiting for a state trooper to saunter up to your door.

Duane eased his window down.

The trooper leaned into the cab. He sniffed the air. “License and registration.”

Duane handed them over.

“You fellas been drinking?”

“Oh. Uh. We had one,” Duane said.

“You swerved back there,” he said.

“There was a dog,” Duane said. He looked at me for confirmation but I just stared straight ahead.

The trooper took a deep breath as he read Duane’s license. Then he backed up a few steps, no doubt so Duane could get out of the truck and begin the process of failing his breathalyzer test.

“So,” the trooper said, “this is the 2016, huh? How you like it?”

“Oh. I love it,” Duane said. “Got it last spring. Had only 3,100 miles. Got it two grand below Blue Book.”

“That’s smart,” said the trooper, “you lose 5 percent driving off the lot buying new.” He tipped his hat back. “Diesel?”

“Yep, 385 horsepower. But still gets almost 18 miles to the gallon.”

I wondered if you could be charged with perjury for lying about your gas mileage.

“On the highway,” added Duane as he’d had the same thought.

I should’ve known what would happened next. “What kind of torque this baby have?” the trooper asked. The rest went like you’d expect (and nothing like if Duane was 22 and black; can you imagine the trooper asking, “What size wheels on this Jetta?”). Duane went on and on about the truck’s torque and its payload and its ability to tow, should Duane ever feel the urge, 31,000 pounds of … really, who the hell knows what?

The trooper let us go.

I sat in the passenger seat, defeated, dejected, dumbfounded … but maybe relieved too.

“You want a drink?” I asked Duane when we got to my house.

“Does a dog hump your leg?”

I said, yes. Dogs often do hump legs.

“Trooper was nice,” Duane said.

I agreed. He was nice. And me?

I was not nice. I was the very ‘letist Duane suspected had it out for good ‘Mericans like him. I was bitter and condescending, the kind of ‘letist who believes in science and language and facts, who believes actions have consequences, and that we can do something about this insane world. At that moment, in fact, I was the whole Democratic Party, maybe the entire liberal world — angry and righteous and ineffective, vigorously leg-humping windmills with our marches and our hashtags and our online petitions — all the while, doomed to spend the next four years riding in a steel and chrome gas-guzzling chariot straight through the gates of Armageddon into a chapter of history so stupid they will have to tell it in coloring books.

****

I stood in my driveway with Duane. We drank more whiskey and stared at his Dodge Ram.

“It IS a nice truck,” I said by way of apology.

He nodded, but sort of wistfully. And that’s when he admitted he was thinking of trading it in. The new Ford F-350 had a payload of 7,350 pounds and could haul 34,000 pounds.

I nodded. “Well, then you’d best go-‘n-get it.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Prolly.”

I held up the whiskey bottle. “One more?”

Duane looked over at me, his brother-in-law, his friend. “Does a cat lick its own ass?”

Yes, I told Duane, they often do that. ***

Jess Walter was a reporter for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, from 1986 to 1994. He is the author of eight books, most recently the No. 1 bestselling novel “Beautiful Ruins” and the story collection “We Live in Water.”

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