Business Trip by Sean McCallum I awake in the waning light of fading afternoon as the electric current rings through my body, the hotel phone jolting me upright and leaving me frozen and staring into the hazy glow of the muted television screen which seems to be replaying the funeral of a nameless dignitary. It isn’t until the third ring that I realize I’m somewhere outside of St. Louis. I pick up the phone and my co-worker tells me that he’s hungry and that we have to go eat somewhere A.S.A.P. This is the acronym he uses, but he says it like a word: Eh-sap. I hang up the phone and remain where I am, sitting on the bed in my underwear, staring transfixed into the miserable reflection on the mirror which hangs opposite me. My hair is a mess and I feel like hell. If it’s Tuesday, I think to myself, this must be Missouri. I am perched lifelessly atop my hotel bed somewhere outside of St. Louis because somewhere outside of St. Louis is where the company I work for has its home office. I’m completely lost. I stumbled off the plane in a hungover daze and have been unable to locate my cell phone since arriving in Central time, let alone any sense of equilibrium. I hate my job, and have nothing but contempt for my co-workers. When people ask me what I do for a living I usually tell them I’m unemployed. Either that or muling contraband. Sometimes I tell people I sell pornography to minors. It really depends on my mood. Because anything is better than this. I am 31 years old and work as a salesman in a field that would be impossible for me to care any less about, a fact which reflects approximately upon my track record and potential for future advancement. It is not uncommon for me to wonder, oftentimes aloud, just what the fuck I’m doing with my life. My company flew me to this airport hotel in the middle of nowhere for a week’s worth of training to which I will pay no attention and extract even less. We had a stopover in New York, and as we were landing at LaGuardia, I saw a play at the plate from 5,000 feet above a Brooklyn diamond that looked the part of an Edward Hopper painting, and I longed for that chalky dust in my face; to breathe it in and to feel the scraping of gravelly grit on the underbelly of my wrists. There was a time when I would have considered fleeing the stagnant and lugubrious air of that misery-inducing airport for a cab and six days bumming around the New York of Dos Passos, but that time is shamefully behind me. Instead, I almost missed my connector flight because I stopped off at a lifeless terminal lounge to knock back a highball and hit on the bartender while watching the Sox lose to the fucking Blue Jays. As the plane headed west, I found myself contemplating the tributaries flowing determinedly to the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays respectively, and also how Sandy Hook, a place that looks even more beautiful from the sky than its name betrays, can be found in a state like New Jersey. The elevator doors open on the ground floor to Mexican Mariachi music and a sign which reads: “Welcome All Friends, Come Join the Fiesta”. I am trying to find my co-worker’s room, but feel like I’ve stepped into some kind of a time warped alternate universe as vibrant older women in Mexican sequin dresses speak excitedly to mustachioed men in black suits balancing miniature paper plates soaked in salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. The hallway is grand and lined with people, and its end yawns into a ballroom that dances with colorful balloons floating motionless in the air, wings clipped with rainbow ribbons latched to annular tables guarded by floral centerpieces. The event is an auction intended to benefit the children of some society or another, and paying heed to the aforementioned banner, I decide to join the fiesta, grabbing myself a margarita from the girl behind the makeshift bar because of her cute smile and because the margaritas are free; bad, but free. I stand and watch the glitterati as they peruse among the silent auction baskets of Mexican bath products, mosaic coffee tables, and artistically painted bedroom dresser drawers. Are they more art or storage? I stand and drink my bad, free margarita, pondering endlessly. I eventually make my way to my co-worker’s room. He is wearing shorts and thick white sport socks with his sandals, and he is complaining about how he can’t get a hold of his fiancé. He can’t stress how hungry he is, so we leave his room immediately, passing another conference hall en route, this one home to the Greater St. Louis Daffodil Society. A man in a ten-gallon hat stumbles into the Annual Daffodil Dinner and brazenly declares, “This ain’t no God- Damn Fiesta!” He laughs boisterously and alone, and then turns to find what he believes to be his more appropriate fund raiser. We stand with the concierge in front of the hotel in the warm dusk and watch as Plasticine soccer moms pull up in BMW SUVs and pay for valet service with the pretense of credit cards that refuse to bear their names. The concierge mentions a trifecta of locales across the river where you can pay for fun, as well as a place to find the best toasted ravioli in town, and eventually the hotel shuttle arrives to take us to a barbecue joint that is supposed to be better than it invariably turns out to be. In the fast-food-moonlighting-as-down-home restaurant, we sit next to two couples with whom my co-worker immediately begins discussions regarding our line of work, and I find myself staring off into the scenic painting of a place that probably never existed, idyllic old West America that vomits cliché in its portrayal of an Indian in headdress riding a wild mustang through a golden valley back-dropped by mountain beauty, hunting steer as the wagon-trainers cower innocently somewhere off in the distance. By the time I come back to the conversation, my co-worker has moved on to the relative merits of acceptable tipping procedures by state, and I can do nothing but sip my Michelob Amber Bock and wonder aloud about the age of the waitress. We walk back to the hotel along the side of the road with the infrequent headlights of passing cars sending us slowly scurrying into the soft grass at the tarmac’s edge. The night is warm and the spring air fragrant with the scent of lilacs and fresh cut grass, and for some reason, perhaps the fluorescent lights of the business district we walk through, the birds are singing. As we walk, we discuss the where- and whatabouts of mutual acquaintances until the shuttle bus passes us by without stopping, after which we manage to traipse back to the hotel in merciful silence. Earlier that morning, I said goodbye to my girlfriend by engaging in loud, sweaty sex with the sun glaring through the windows and my alarm clock relaying the all request breakfast while two drunken friends remained unconscious in an alcoholic stupor on the kitchen floor. My girlfriend stuffed a note into my suitcase telling me how much she loved and missed me so I could read it at a later time, presumably when I was away from her and alone, but I was forced to open my suitcase while passing through security at the airport and consequently read it there and then, hungover and hurried and much to the heckling pleasure of the gawking onlookers in line behind me. She also gave me a necklace lined with Tibetan beads to wear around my neck to quell my fear of flying, leading most of the flight attendants to assume, not unfairly, that I was a homosexual, resulting in my subsequent acquisition of an unlimited number of complimentary ginger ale refills. On my way out the door, she buried her face in my shoulder and told me that she was already counting the hours until I got home. I kissed her goodbye and got into a cab for the airport. The hotel is in a sterile tourist complex, remote from the rest of the neighborhood and not entirely unlike one of those shitty tourist complexes you might find on some Caribbean island where visitors are amputated from the rest of the native culture; ironically, the very thing in which they are striving to be immersed, or so they tell their friends. The people walk around this place wearing short sleeve Tropical print rayon button ups while drinking bottles of water. I hate it here and wish I were anyplace else. My co-worker says he’s beat and will probably just go back to his room and call it a night. He doesn’t say it, but even the motherfucker in the Hawaiian shirt and Oakley wraparounds (worn above the eyes, at night, wrapped around a balding head) knows he’s going back to call his fiancé. I agree that it’s been a long day, and jokingly suggest, a la Joe Montana circa 1987, that I’ll probably just go upstairs to my room and order some porn on the company tab so I can jerk off to contrived images of the boss’s wife. My co-worker laughs out of something approaching awkward discomfort and turns to head inside. I decide to take one last stroll through the plaza. Most of the bars are half-empty with frat boys who still live with their parents, and cellophane coeds who sop up every last ounce of their equivocating shit, so long as the boys in their striped shirts with upturned collars keep ponying up for Jager Bombs. One of the bars charges a $10 cover so you can go in and listen to a wedding-reception-caliber DJ playing Top 40 pissfuck and dance half-heartedly to music you hate while unsuccessfully trying to convince yourself you’re having a good time. I want someone to take a mallet to my skull. I eventually settle on a plastic, fabricated “Jazz and Blues Bar” that has a $5 cover and an all-white 3 piece outfit that the patrons believe to be authentic and St. Louis. The only people dancing are a couple who look as if they’re related. They really do. The band sucks, and they are making an embarrassment of the musical tradition they contend to uphold, but I grab an empty stool at the bar and order a bottle of Sam Adams because I can’t bear the sight of my room’s Liberty Optic White walls. Not yet. The lead singer plays a Flying V while painfully bastardizing classics by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Chuck Berry. A cute girl with nape-of-the-neck auburn ringlets that make you want to cry with longing sits across the bar, smiling at me. I look away because I have nothing to offer, and when some older guy with a bigger expense account and an unsuspecting wife at home shows up and begins buying her drinks, I turn my attention to the television behind the bar, which is showing re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond, closed-captioning like ticker tape jutting across the bottom of the silent screen. When the band mercifully finishes their set, I tip the bartender a dollar and make sure to avoid any semblance of eye contact with anyone as I leave. On the walk across the bar-lined courtyard on my way back to the hotel, I stop to admire a bunny rabbit sitting halcyon in the grass. Its coat is feathery down and the color of wheat fields in an early autumn Saskatchewan, and it sits silent and unmoving but for the terrified twitch of its nose while I contemplate it for longer than anyone could ever dream. When I gently move towards it to know the feel of its velvet fur between my fingers (at the base of my fingers, in the crevices where they meet the palm), it hops away, slower and more deliberately than you would imagine, to a place I will never know. On the way back to my room I pass the ‘Lodge Style’ bar in the lobby of the hotel, but see nothing but businessmen slobbering in competition over a drunken girl who wouldn’t normally warrant the slightest hint of a second glance. I share an elevator with one of the ladies from the Daffodil Society and a male member of the hotel cleaning staff. I unlock the door to my room with the card key provided, and strip down to my underwear so I can sit on the bed and watch the highlights on ESPN. I briefly consider brushing my teeth, but instead decide to phone my girlfriend, knowing full well that the two actions are not mutually exclusive, but acting the part anyway. I tell her that I arrived safely and that her note made me wish I were back in our bed, this morning all over again, the feel of my skin against her skin, my nose nuzzled into the nape of her neck with the sun beating down through our curtainless windows as the morning sounds of the city streets unravel beneath us like a Broadway musical. She tells me that she loves me, and I hang up the phone, wondering if I’ll ever garner the sack to quit this fucking job.